Over the past several months, journalists have exposed some risks of radiation therapy that have been previously unknown, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Some experts estimate that 1 in 20 men undergoing radiation therapy will have such complications. Many of the problems involve technical errors that went unrecognized, leading to serious radiation overdoses. I'll go over some of the more egregious errors that have been identified.
1) Stereotactic "radiosurgery." Contrary to its name, this increasingly utilized technique does not involve surgery in the traditional sense. Rather, it involves high doses of radiation delivered in very narrow beams, such that it achieves surgical precision. At least that's how it's supposed to work. But faulty connections on the radiation machines (known as linear accelerators) at several radiation centers have led to a "leak" of radiation, causing areas that were supposed to be protected to receive the high doses of radiation intended only for the targeted area. Dozens of patients have developed numerous complications, including difficulty with speech and walking, hair loss, and reports of a woman who has become comatose and a man who has died. Click here to read the full report.
Radiation does not damage tissue immediately, but rather takes several months to reach its effectiveness. This often confuses patients, as they don't realize that the problems they are seeing are related to their radiation treatment. Such confusion and delay often prevent centers from realizing the mistakes they have made until many others have been injured.
2) External beam radiotherapy. Similar to stereotactic radiosurgery, this technique works by beaming radiation at the tumor from a linear accelerator. But instead of the beam straying from its intended course and affecting surrounding tissues, the problem is related to too much radiation going through the machine. High radiation doses then burn tissue in the path of the beam, causing ulcers, sores and even holes in tissues. Dozens of patients, many in New York state, have been injured through these mistakes. Click here for the full report.
3) Brachytherapy ("seeds"). Radiation can be delivered by implanting small pellets of radioactive material, known as seeds, into cancerous organs. But if done incorrectly, it can lead to severe damage to surrounding tissues. At just one hospital, a Veteran's Affairs hospital in Philadelphia, over 90 men received incorrect seed implants for prostate cancer. Many of these men developed severe problems with their rectum, often requiring surgery to help them deal with the symptoms. None of the safeguards that should have protected the patients were followed. Click here for the full report.
These articles have shown that many radiation centers are missing critical safeguards that should be protecting patients from these types of injuries. Prior to choosing radiation therapy for your cancer, it is important that you understand these risks and consider all other options. Very few diseases require radiation therapy alone, so be sure to ask your doctor what other options exist.
David B. Samadi, MD is the Vice Chairman of the Department of Urology and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. As a board-certified urologist and an oncologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of urologic diseases, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer, he also specializes in many advanced minimally invasive treatments for prostate cancer, including laparoscopic radical prostatectomy and laparoscopic robotic radical prostatectomy. His Web site, Robotic Oncology, has been translated into six different languages and is one of the most popular urology sites on the Internet. Find Dr. Samadi on Facebook. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter @drdavidsamadi.