Radioactive Iodine Isolation

Radioactive iodine, also known as RAI, is a type of treatment that may be given to patients a few weeks after a thyroidectomy surgery.

RAI is used to ablate (get rid of) any remaining thyroid cancer cells that may be left over after the surgery. These cells could remain if the surgeon was not able to remove all of the tissue, or if thyroid cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. RAI helps to decrease the chances that thyroid cancer will come back, or recur.

The radiation in I-131 destroys all of the remaining thyroid cells, both normal and cancerous, but has little to no effect on the rest of the body

During RAI therapy, a patient will take a pill containing radioactive iodine, called I-131. All thyroid cells absorb iodine from the bloodstream, and they will even uptake the radioactive form of iodine. The radiation in I-131 destroys all of the remaining thyroid cells, both normal and cancerous, but has little to no effect on the rest of the body. Any I-131 that is not absorbed by thyroid tissue is eliminated from the body through saliva, sweat, urine, and other fluids. It generally takes around one week for all of the leftover I-131 to leave the body.

Though RAI therapy only effects thyroid tissue and does not harm the rest of the body, the leftover I-131 that leaves the body can negatively affect other people. Patients who undergo RAI therapy are therefore asked to remain in isolation for the week following their treatment. During isolation, patients will need to limit interactions with others, remain several feet away from family members, avoid physical contact with others, thoroughly wash eating utensils, clothing, and linens, sleep alone, and clean all surfaces carefully, among other precautions. The rules are generally more strict for the first few days after treatment, when patients may still be in the hospital, but get less strict towards the end of the week. Patients who live with small children or pregnant women should be even more cautious.

Patients will not be able to see their families, play with their children, or interact with their friends …some people may feel sad or helpless

Isolation may be lonely, stressful, and emotionally challenging for patients. Patients will not be able to see their families, play with their children, or interact with their friends. It is a difficult time, and some people may feel sad or helpless. These feelings are completely normal, and patients should remember that the separation will only last for a few days. Some patients find it helpful to communicate with friends and family through texts, emails, or phone calls, and others enjoy reading, watching television, or listening to music to help pass the time.

For many patients, communicating through the internet is a wonderful way to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences and who may be able to share wisdom and advice. Hearing these stories is often comforting to patients and helps them feel less alone.

While every patient has his/her own unique experience with RAI therapy, it is important for patients to feel connected and supported by their friends and family—even if it’s just through text or social media. Remember: isolation is only temporary, but it represents a necessary step in ensuring lifelong health and well-being.

30 Stories in 30 Days

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. For the next 4 weeks, we will post stories written by thyroid cancer survivors, caregivers and friends for our 30 Stories in 30 Days campaign. We hope their perspectives and insight will help others along their journey.