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What is Radioactive Iodine Therapy? A Patient's View on Thyroid Cancer Treatment

Read Time: 3 minutes

Anne Snuggerud
Anne Snuggerud

Radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy is a type of treatment for an overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism, and certain types of thyroid cancer. The term "radioactive" may sound scary, but it is a safe and effective treatment.

RAI is taken by mouth. Since only thyroid tissue takes up iodine in the body, RAI destroys thyroid tissue and thyroid cancer cells without harming other tissue. The amount given depends on the type and stage of cancer being treated. Before a patient takes a full dose of RAI, a small dose is used to see if the tumor takes the iodine.

After RAI therapy, patients must be cautious to limit the radiation that other people may be exposed to from your body. Patients should keep a reasonable distance from others and shorten time spent together. Patients should also avoid eating foods with high levels of iodine such as fish, milk, eggs, and anything with salt. This is so thyroid cells can focus on absorbing the RAI from treatment.

We recently spoke with Huntsman Cancer Institute patient Anne Snuggerud about her experience with RAI.

Anne Snuggerud
Anne Snuggerud

Why did you have your thyroid removed?

I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer after I found a swollen lymph node in my neck. I had a total thyroidectomy and left neck dissection. Fifty-two lymph nodes were removed and I barely have a scar to prove it. Jason Hunt, MD, FACS, and his team did an amazing job!

How did you and your medical team decide on RAI treatment?

After surgery, I had six positive lymph nodes and a microscopic positive margin, meaning there was a small chance that some cancer cells were left. Devaprabu Abraham, MD, spent almost an hour with me discussing these results and the pros and cons of RAI treatment. He took a very personalized approach and together, we decided to proceed with a very low dose of RAI treatment. This would hopefully minimize the cons and still take care of any cancer cells.

Did you have any concerns about RAI treatment?

As a young, healthy woman, I was mostly concerned about future effects on fertility and risks of secondary cancers. Dr. Abraham was very open and thoughtful about these risks and made sure I felt comfortable with the plan.

Did you stay in the hospital or at home?

I completed my RAI isolation from the comfort of my own home.

Anne Snuggerud
Anne Snuggerud

What was it like to be isolated?

I had to isolate from my husband and dog for five days. Fortunately, RAI isolation is more generous than COVID! I could breathe the same air as long as I stayed 3-5 feet away, so we spent most of the time on opposite ends of rooms. The five days went pretty quick. I watched a lot of television and didn't have any significant side effects. My dog definitely took it the hardest. He missed the pets and cuddles!

How did you feel during treatment?

The hardest part of RAI treatment is the preparation. I had to stop taking my thyroid hormone so the two weeks before treatment I had little energy and was sleepy. Navigating the low-iodine diet on top of feeling terrible was hard. I was so lucky to have my husband and friends feeding me.

Did you experience any side effects?

I did not have any side effects at all. It was a huge relief to start taking thyroid hormones and eating foods with iodine again.

Is there anything you want to tell other patients who need this treatment?

My best advice is to prepare low-iodine foods while you have the energy or enlist your family and friends to do it for you. Remind yourself—it's important to do the low-iodine diet so your treatment works. Other than that, collect your friend's streaming subscription passwords and have a very lazy staycation! It goes fast.

Cancer touches all of us.