What is radioiodine therapy?

Radioiodine therapy, also known as radioactive iodine ablation, is a thyroid cancer treatment that is used to destroy thyroid tissue that was not removed by surgery. It may also be used to treat thyroid cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body.

The goal of radioiodine therapy is to kill any malignant cells that remain after surgery.

Who is a candidate for radioiodine therapy

Patients who have papillary or follicular thyroid cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes, neck or other areas of the body are the best candidates for radioiodine therapy. Patients who have localized thyroid cancer that has not spread may be better candidates for surgery.

Your doctor and care team will evaluate your case to determine if radioiodine therapy is an option for you.

Side effects associated with radioiodine therapy

Side effects associated with radioiodine therapy may include:

  • Swelling in neck or salivary glands
  • Tenderness in the neck or salivary glands
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth or eyes
  • Changes in taste sensations
  • Lower sperm counts or infertility (men)
  • Irregular menstrual cycles (women)
  • Increased risk of leukemia

What to expect during radioiodine therapy

For radioiodine therapy to be most effective, you must have a high level of thyroid-stimulating hormone in the blood. To increase this prior to RAI, you may be given a thyroid hormone medication or an injectable form of thyrotropin before the RAI is performed.

During the procedure, your doctor will give you the radioactive iodine in a shot or capsule form. Because the thyroid gland absorbs the iodine in the body, when radioactive iodine enters the body, it is absorbed by the thyroid gland. The radiation from the iodine destroys any thyroid cancer cells (as well as other thyroid cells) that absorb the iodine. If thyroid cancer has moved to other areas of the body, the radioactivity can kill those cells while other healthy tissue of the body is not impacted.

Radioiodine therapy is most effective one to two months after thyroid cancer surgery.

Recovery after radioiodine therapy

Because you will emit radiation for a while after radioiodine therapy, you will likely stay in the hospital for a few days after the procedure. You will be housed in a special isolation room to prevent exposing others to radiation.

At discharge, your doctor will give you specific instructions on how to protect others from radiation exposure. You may also experience side effects such as an upset stomach, dry mouth, sore neck or your food may taste different. These side effects will gradually wear off over the course of a few weeks.

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