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How Cancer Affects Cremation

Will cancer treatments affect if a person can be cremated? Learn when cancer patients can and cannot be cremated after treatment and why.
How Treatments Impact Being Cremated
How Treatments Impact Being Cremated

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Cancer impacts almost every aspect of a person’s life. While that’s widely understood, what’s less known is how cancer impacts what happens after death. 

Receiving a cancer diagnosis doesn’t automatically mean cremation can’t be performed. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it’s perfectly fine and the cremation can be carried out like normal. But that’s not always the case.

There are ways that cancer affects when and how a cremation can occur. Read on for an explanation and what to expect if you or a loved one had cancer. 

The Issue: Cancer That Requires Radiation Treatments

The cancer itself may have no effect on cremation, but the treatments that fight cancer can. There are many therapies that pose no threat to others at all. However, one of the most common forms of cancer treatment does require caution – radiation therapies. 

We’ve known for some time that medical professionals that administer radiation therapies of any kind must follow strict safety protocols to protect themselves from radiation exposure. As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes, radiation can damage the DNA in cells. In fact, that’s how radiation treats cancer. It is targeted to kill the cancer cells and slow their growth by damaging their DNA structures. Ironically, exposure to radiation can increase the risk of developing cancer in a healthy person.

Why Radiation is a Growing Concern at Crematoriums 

There’s always been concern that cremating someone who received radiation treatments for cancer could cause radiation contamination and potentially harm people. It’s a legitimate concern given that:

  • More people are being cremated – the cremation rate in 2022 was 59% in the U.S. according to the Cremation Association of North America. 
  • The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the cremation rate will increase to 80% by 2035. 
  • The rate of cancer is rising among most age groups – New studies show an alarming increase in cancer cases, and it’s not just among the aging population. Worldwide, cancer cases are up 79.1% for people who are 14 to 49 years old. 
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 50% of cancer patients receive radiation treatments of some sort. 

All of that means radiation exposure through cremation is a growing concern simply due to the fact more people who have received radiation therapy at some point in life will be cremated. But how dangerous is it?

Real World Example of Why Caution is Needed for Cremation After Cancer Treatments

Up until 2017, it was speculated that precaution was needed if someone who received radiation treatment wanted to be cremated. There were even protocols for performing a cremation if the deceased had ever received radiation therapy. However, an incident in Arizona proved definitively that cremating someone who recently received cancer treatments could cause contamination that puts crematorium workers and possibly others at risk. 

When a 69-year old man passed away at a hospital in Arizona in 2017 they weren’t aware he had received the radiopharmaceutical lutetium 177 for pancreatic cancer just a few days before at the Mayo Clinic. So when his body was sent to the crematorium that vital information wasn’t noted.

The man was cremated a short while later, just a week after receiving the radiation treatment. When the Mayo Clinic found out the man passed away they were able to alert the crematorium that had performed the cremation. Both the cremation operator and the crematorium were measured for radiation levels, and traces of lutetium 177 were found along with other radiopharmaceuticals. While the levels were considered within the safe limit, it was proof positive that crematorium workers could be exposed to radiation.  

How the Type of Cancer Radiation Treatment Affects Cremation

Some types of radiation treatments have more of an impact on the cremation than others. External beam radiation therapy will have little to no effect on a cremation given that the deceased wouldn’t be emitting radiation. At the same time a radiation therapy implant could mean cremation isn’t feasible. 

Here are the general guidelines for cremation if the deceased received radiation treatments:

  • External beam radiation therapy that is targeted to a certain area from outside of the body.
    • Shouldn’t affect when the cremation can be performed.
  • Intravenous radiation that is administered through an IV.
    • There’s a waiting period of at least 12 days before cremation.
  • Pharmaceutical radiation that can be taken by mouth, injected or placed in the eye or bladder.
    • Cremation can be performed 12 days or more after the last treatment.
  • Radiation implant that is placed in the body (seeds, balloons, wires, etc.).
    • It doesn’t make much of a difference which kind of implant was used, but rather when it was implanted. Cremation can’t occur with any kind of radiation implant unless the implant was placed at least two months prior.

These protocols should also be followed if the person chooses natural burial or natural organic reduction. However, the concern with these services is soil contamination. 

State Regulations Could Impact Cremation After Cancer Treatment

Cremation is regulated on a state-by-state basis. Some states have accounted for the fact that the deceased may have had radiation treatments, while others don’t. A good example of this is cremation in Florida. The state has strict guidelines that disallows cremating anything other than human remains. That includes things within the body like medical devices that emit radiation and radiation itself. It must be noted if the deceased has received radiation therapy, but that’s not the case in every state.  

If a person has received cancer treatments of any kind and they plan to be cremated it’s important to check the cremation regulations for the state. Depending on how cremation is regulated and the disposition options that are available, traditional cremation may not be possible. However, water cremation may be allowed since medical devices aren’t incinerated and don’t have to be removed from the body in advance. They can safely be removed and disposed of after the cremation is complete. 

Cancer and Cremated Remains

Some people have been concerned about radiation contamination during a cremation, but what about the cremated remains at the end of the process? Could cremains emit radiation

As discussed in a previous post, cremated remains should not contain radiation if the proper protocols were followed. Even if they weren’t followed, research suggests that the level of radiation would be within levels that aren’t considered dangerous to people.  

If you or a loved one is receiving radiation treatments of any kind our team can answer your questions about how it affects the cremation process. We’re available by phone, text or email 24 hours a day.

Picture of Marlaena Gonzales

Marlaena Gonzales

Funeral Director
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