What is brachytherapy?
Brachytherapy is a form of radiation therapy used to treat various cancers. Treatment involves surgically placing radioactive seeds, capsules or other implants directly in or near the cancerous tumor.
The implants give off radiation for a short time. Radiation from brachytherapy targets cancerous tissue, sparing healthy, surrounding tissue. Brachytherapy is also called internal radiation therapy.
What’s the difference between internal radiation and external radiation?
Another name for brachytherapy is internal radiation therapy. Cancer doctors place radioactive materials inside the body to destroy the tumor from within. The entire treatment takes place internally.
In contrast, with external radiation therapy, a machine delivers beams of radiation energy through the skin to the tumor. External radiation has a slightly higher chance of radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue and organs. For some cancers, external radiation is the only possible treatment.
What are the types of brachytherapy?
There are different types of brachytherapy implants. Some remain in the body permanently. Your healthcare provider removes temporary implants after treatment ends. Your provider will select the best treatment for your specific needs. Brachytherapy implants include:
- Low-dose rate (LDR): LDR implants emit low doses of radiation for one to seven days. Your provider may remove the implants after treatment or leave them in place permanently.
- High-dose rate (HDR): HDR implants discharge high doses of radiation for 10 to 20 minutes. Your provider then removes the implant. Treatment times vary from twice a day for up to five days to once a week for up to five weeks.
- Permanent: Radioactive implants emit radiation 24/7 until there’s no radiation left in them. The implants or seeds, which are about the size of a grain of rice, remain in your body. This treatment is also called seed implantation.
How does brachytherapy work?
Radioactive materials implanted inside or next to the tumor emit a prescribed dose of radiation. Radiation destroys or damages the genetic makeup of cancer cells. Damaged cancer cells can’t grow and multiply. Eventually, they die off.
What does brachytherapy treat?
Brachytherapy can treat these cancers:
How should I prepare for brachytherapy?
Your healthcare provider will go over pre-surgical requirements with you. You may need to:
- Get an imaging scan, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan.
- Stop taking medications, such as blood thinners (warfarin) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), that affect blood clotting.
- Use a bowel preparation (enema) before the procedure.
- Not drink or eat anything for several hours before going to the hospital.
How is brachytherapy performed?
The procedure varies depending on the brachytherapy type and cancer. You’ll have anesthesia to relieve pain and discomfort. Your healthcare provider uses a catheter (small flexible tube) or applicator device to place the radioactive materials. Brachytherapy may occur inside the tumor (interstitial) or near the tumor (intracavity). The catheter or applicator may stay in place until you finish treatments.
What should I do after getting brachytherapy?
You’ll need to stay in the hospital while undergoing HDR brachytherapy. Your body is radioactive during this time.
If you have permanent brachytherapy (also known as LDR), you could potentially expose other people to radiation for several weeks or months. While the exposure risk is small, you should limit your contact with young children and pregnant women as directed by your doctor.
Risks / Benefits
What are potential risks or complications of brachytherapy?
Side effects from brachytherapy vary depending on treatment type and the cancer being treated. These problems typically improve in a few months after treatment stops. You may experience:
Recovery and Outlook
How effective is brachytherapy?
Brachytherapy is a highly effective treatment for certain types of cancer. It’s most effective on cancers that haven’t spread, or metastasized. Internal radiation therapy takes place inside the body. Compared to external radiation therapy, brachytherapy targets just the tumor, sparing nearby healthy tissue and organs. Most side effects improve as the radiation leaves your body.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Trouble breathing or swallowing.
- Severe stomach upset, vomiting or diarrhea.
- Urinary incontinence.
- Fecal incontinence.