Brachytherapy, or internal radiation therapy, treats prostate, breast, head and neck, and other cancers. Doctors place tiny radioactive pellets inside or next to the tumor. The pellets give off radiation that destroys cancer cells. The treatment spares surrounding healthy tissue and organs. Brachytherapy isn’t used for cancers that have spread.
Brachytherapy (pronounced “bray-kee-THEH-ruh-pee”) is a form of radiation therapy that treats various cancers. Treatment involves surgically placing radioactive seeds, capsules or other implants inside or near a cancerous tumor. The implants give off radiation for a short time.
Brachytherapy can deliver large amounts of radiation that shrink or destroy tumors, while sparing healthy, surrounding tissue.
Brachytherapy is also called internal radiation therapy.
Radioactive materials implanted inside or beside a tumor release a prescribed radiation dose. Radiation destroys cancer cells or damages their genetic makeup (DNA). Damaged cancer cells can’t grow and multiply. Eventually, they die off.
You may receive brachytherapy alone or with other cancer treatments, like electronic beam radiation therapy or surgery.
Brachytherapy treatments vary in strength (dosage) and treatment duration. With brachytherapy, your body may give off trace amounts of radiation and potentially expose others. Following your radiation oncologist’s instructions about when and how to interact with others safely if you’re receiving brachytherapy is important.
Brachytherapy implants include:
Brachytherapy is most effective at treating cancer that hasn’t metastasized, or spread throughout your body. It’s effective at destroying “local” tumors, or tumors in a specific area in your body.
Brachytherapy can treat:
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Your healthcare provider will explain how you should prepare. You may need to:
The procedure depends on your cancer, the type of brachytherapy (LDR, HDR or permanent) and where the implants are placed:
Regardless of the procedure, you’ll have medicines to keep you relaxed. You may get a sedative and anesthesia to relieve pain and discomfort. Once you’re comfortable, your healthcare provider will:
You’ll receive pain medications to ease any discomfort once it’s time to remove the catheter or applicator device.
You may need to limit your activity and get extra rest after treatment. Follow your healthcare provider’s guidance on when it’s safe to return to your usual routine.
It’s essential that you follow your provider’s instructions on how to interact with others safely. For example, if you have permanent brachytherapy, you may 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 people who are pregnant as directed by your healthcare provider.
Potential side effects depend on the cancer type and the type of brachytherapy you receive. Side effects typically improve a few months after treatment stops.
You may experience:
Usually, side effects occur in the body part where the implant is. For example, with a prostate gland seed implant, you may experience fatigue, urinary and/or bowel symptoms or erectile dysfunction, but not hair loss or mouth sores.
As with any cancer treatment, brachytherapy can cause unpleasant side effects. Most side effects improve once treatment stops, but some are long-term or don’t appear until after treatment ends. Ask your healthcare provider about potential risks associated with brachytherapy before starting treatment.
Brachytherapy is a highly effective treatment for certain types of cancer. It’s most effective on cancers that haven’t spread, or metastasized. Most side effects improve as the radiation leaves your body.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms during treatment:
Internal radiation, like brachytherapy, uses radioactive materials inside of your body to destroy a tumor. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses a machine to deliver beams of radiation energy through your skin to the tumor.
External radiation is more common than brachytherapy. It’s the only possible treatment for some cancers.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Brachytherapy places radiation close to a tumor, destroying cancer cells, while sparing healthy tissue from harmful radiation exposure. It’s excellent at treating local tumors, like those found in breast, prostate, cervical and uterine cancer. Follow your healthcare provider’s guidance about caring for yourself and managing side effects if you’re receiving brachytherapy. Ask about likely outcomes if you’re receiving brachytherapy as a standalone treatment or in combination with another treatment, like surgery.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/03/2022.
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