Cancer-Free and Radioactive to Boot

October 31st, 2010

In an article in The New York Times this past Monday, Matthew L. Wald writes about the renewed debate surrounding radioactive iodine, a popular and effective treatment for thyroid cancer. Strangely, the concern is not for the patients who swallow the nuclear material, but for the family, friends, and even strangers who they may come in contact with.

While it only takes one dose of the iodine to kill off the malignant cells in most thyroid cancer sufferers, it does render the patient radioactive for up to a week. The list of side effects reads more like a Marvel comic than a medical pamphlet. Patients pose a threat to anyone in their proximity, especially children and fetuses, and their bodily fluids, saliva and urine included, could probably fetch a pretty penny on any weapons black market. The radiation emanating from their bodies is so strong that “one patient in New York boarded a bus for Atlantic City, N.J., and set off a radiation alarm in the Lincoln Tunnel.”

But ever since 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee hasn’t required those who receive the  treatment to be quarantined, meaning that like the glowing Greyhound-er above patients are left to fend for themselves after hospitals release them.

Almost five percent of patients, including Ann B. Maddox of Fayetteville, N.C., choose to stay in hotels rather than go home immediately. But even when they do return, they still try and keep their distance for fear of exposing their loved ones.

Said Ms. Maddox of sitting in the third row of seats in her Honda Odyssey when her husband came to pick her up the next day, “I’m sure it looked like we had some kind of spat.”