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What Is Brachytherapy?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 14, 2020

Brachytherapy, or internal radiation, is a cancer treatment in which a doctor puts a radioactive implant inside your body. It's usually painless, and it works very well to treat some cancers.

The radioactive material used in brachytherapy may be in pellets called "seeds," or in:

  • Wires
  • Ribbons
  • Balloons
  • Capsules

The doctor implants it using a needle or catheter. They place it very close to, or inside, your tumor.

This lets them deliver radiation to cancer cells while harming as few healthy cells as possible. The implant can be temporary or permanent.

What Does Brachytherapy Treat?

Brachytherapy is mostly used to treat prostate cancer. But it can be used for other cancers, including:

  • Gynecologic cancers like cervical, vaginal, and uterine (endometrial)
  • Breast
  • Lung
  • Rectal
  • Eye
  • Skin
  • Brain
  • Head and neck
  • Pancreatic

What to Expect

Before the operation, you’ll meet with a radiation oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in radiation treatment for cancer. You'll probably have an X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound to help them decide how and where to place the implant.

Brachytherapy is usually done in a hospital operating room. This helps make sure the radiation is safely contained.

Depending on the type and location of your brachytherapy, you’ll get either general or local anesthesia. With general anesthesia, you're asleep during the operation. With local anesthesia, part of your body is numb.

High-Dose-Rate vs. Low-Dose-Rate Brachytherapy

For high-dose-rate (HDR) brachytherapy, you get a powerful burst of radiation that lasts a few minutes. It may be repeated several times over a few days or weeks. After each treatment, your doctor removes the radioactive material.

With low-dose-rate (LDR) brachytherapy, the doctor puts in implants that give you a lower dose of radiation over a longer time. They may be removed after a few days, or left in place. The amount of radiation they give off goes down over time.

Side Effects

Possible side effects of brachytherapy include:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Discomfort where you got the implant

The anesthesia drugs might make you feel drowsy, weak, or nauseated.

When brachytherapy is used on gynecologic or prostate cancers, it could also lead to:

How to Keep Others Safe

When you get brachytherapy, your body may give off a small amount of radiation for a few weeks or months. Your doctor might ask you to take steps to avoid exposing other people to it.

While you're getting HDR brachytherapy, you may have to stay in the hospital and limit visitors. Doctors and nurses may stay at a distance from you or wear protective clothing.

When you have LDR brachytherapy, follow your doctors' instructions for limiting contact with people who are at higher risk from radiation. This includes small children and pregnant women.

If you have a permanent implant, it will stop giving off radiation over time. So you'll be able to return to normal contact with people.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "What is Brachytherapy?"

National Cancer Institute: "Brachytherapy to Treat Cancer."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "What Is Brachytherapy?"

American Cancer Society: "Getting Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy)."

Medscape: "Brachytherapy (Radioactive Seed Implantation Therapy) in Prostate Cancer."

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