What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is radiation treatment delivered directly into your body. It is placed as close to the cancer as possible. The radiation is delivered using radioactive isotopes (chemical elements). The isotopes are inside delivery devices such as wires, seeds, or rods. These devices are called implants.

Brachytherapy lets your doctor use a higher total dose of radiation over a shorter time than is possible with external beam therapy. The radiation dose is focused on the cancer cells and does less damage to the nearby normal cells.

Brachytherapy may be done along with external beam therapy to help destroy tumor cells for certain types of cancer.

Brachytherapy is often used in the treatment of the following cancers:

  • Cervical

  • Uterine

  • Vaginal

  • Prostate

  • Breast cancer

  • Eye cancer

  • Head and neck cancers

However, the therapy may also used to treat many other cancers.

How does brachytherapy work?

Brachytherapy can be delivered in 3 ways:

  • Intracavitary treatment. Radioactive implants are placed inside body cavities such as the vagina, uterus, or breast.

  • Interstitial treatment. Radioactive implants are placed directly into the tumor and may stay in permanently.

  • Unsealed internal radiation therapy. A medicine with radioactive materials is injected into a vein or into a body cavity.

Brachytherapy implant placement may be either permanent or temporary:

  • Permanent brachytherapy. This is also called low-dose rate brachytherapy. Permanent brachytherapy uses implants called pellets or seeds. These implants are very small, about the size of a grain of rice. Your doctor inserts the seeds directly into a tumor with thin, hollow needles. The seeds are left in place after the radiation has been used up. Their small size causes little or no discomfort.

  • Temporary brachytherapy. In temporary brachytherapy, implants are removed after the treatment has ended. Implants, such as hollow needles, catheters (hollow tubes), or balloons filled with fluid, are inserted into or near the cancer for a period of time, then removed. Either high-dose or low-dose brachytherapy may be used.

Your doctor may use anesthesia during the insertion of implants. This will depend on the size and number of implants, as well as the location of the insertion site.

Generally, when you have brachytherapy, you will be treated on an outpatient  basis. If you have high dose therapy, you will be in the hospital for a few days. To protect others from the effects of the radiation while it is active inside your body, you will need to follow specific rules. Although each facility may have specific rules for brachytherapy, generally, treatment may require the following:

  • Placing brachytherapy patients in a private room

  • Limiting hospital staff time in the patient's room, but all necessary care will be given

  • Placing portable shields between the patient and staff or visitors

  • Limitations for visitors, which may include:

    • Pregnant women or children under a certain age should not visit

    • A limit on the length of visits

    • A limit on how close to get to the patient

How long does the radiation last?

How long the radiation lasts will depend on the type of treatment given. Your doctor will determine the brachytherapy type based on the type of cancer you have, the location of the cancer, and other considerations. If the brachytherapy implant is a low-dose implant, the implant may be left in for several days. High-dose implants may be removed after only a few minutes.

Some implants are permanent. If you have a permanent implant, you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days. The radiation gets weaker each day, and you will most likely be discharged after a few days. There may be certain safety measures to be taken at home. The doctor will give you specific instructions if needed.

Your doctor may remove temporary implants after you have the complete dose of radiation.