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What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is radiation treatment that is given directly into your body. It is placed as close to the cancer as possible. The radiation is given using tiny devices, such as wires, seeds, or rods filled with radioactive materials. These devices are called implants.

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

Brachytherapy implants may be short-term (temporary) or long-lasting (permanent).

Temporary brachytherapy

Temporary implants are removed after the treatment has ended. The implants may be hollow needles, hollow tubes (catheters), or balloons filled with fluid. The implants are inserted into or near the cancer for short time, then removed. Either high-dose or low-dose brachytherapy may be used:

  • High-dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy. The implants stay in the body for several minutes and then are removed.

  • Low-dose rate (LDR) brachytherapy. The implants stay in the body for hours or days and then are removed.

Permanent brachytherapy

This type is also called low-dose rate brachytherapy or seed implantation. It uses implants called pellets or seeds. These implants are very small, about the size of a grain of rice. Your healthcare provider 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 pain. With time, the radiation lessens, then stops completely. 

Why might I need brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy may be used to treat many types of cancer, such as:

  • Prostate cancer

  • Cancer of the vagina, cervix, or uterus

  • Breast cancer

  • Eye cancer

  • Head and neck cancers

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

What are the risks of brachytherapy?

Side effects of brachytherapy often depend on where the therapy is given and the therapy dose. Risks and possible complications include:

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)

  • Pain from staying in 1 position

  • Temporary side effects in the area being treated. For example, head and neck brachytherapy can cause sores in the mouth and throat. Brachytherapy to the pelvis can cause urinary or digestive issues, such as urinary frequency or diarrhea.

  • Failure to affect tumor growth

  • Damage to healthy tissue and organs

  • Having another cancer later due to radiation exposure

  • Risks of anesthesia

How do I get ready for brachytherapy?

Before brachytherapy starts, your healthcare provider will decide which tests you need. These may include blood tests, an electrocardiogram (EKG), chest X-rays, and scans, such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT.

A few days before your brachytherapy starts, you will be given specific directions about how to prepare. Follow these directions closely. Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines you take. This includes both over-the-counter and prescription medicines. It also includes vitamins, herbs, and other supplements. You may need to stop taking some or all of them before the procedure. You may need to stop taking aspirin and over-the-counter pain and fever medicines (called NSAIDS or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These can cause bleeding problems. Also, follow any directions you’re given for not eating or drinking before the procedure.

What happens during brachytherapy?

The type of cancer you have, its location, and other factors will determine your treatment schedule. How long brachytherapy lasts will depend on the type of treatment given. You may go home after treatment. Or you may stay in the hospital for 1 or more nights.

Before the procedure. Right before the brachytherapy starts, you may need anesthesia medicine to keep you free from pain while the implants are placed in your body. This will depend on the size and number of implants, as well as the location of the insertion site. Anesthesia makes you numb, drowsy, or completely asleep. An IV (intravenous) line is put into a vein in your arm or hand to give fluids and medicines.

During the procedure. A delivery device, such as a needle, is placed into the cancer site. The device may be passed through a nearby opening in the body, such as the vagina or rectum. Or a cut (incision) may be made in the skin. Implants are then passed through the delivery device into or near the cancer site. The implants are placed by hand or machine. X-rays, ultrasound, or another imaging test may be used to make sure of correct placement. Here's what happens depending on the type you have:

  • High-dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy. The implants are put in once a day for several minutes, then removed. The implant tube may be removed after each treatment session. Or it may stay in place. You may go home between treatments. Or you may stay in the hospital until all treatment sessions are done.

  • Low-dose rate (LDR) brachytherapy. The implants and delivery device stay in place for hours to days. You stay in the hospital during this time.

  • Permanent brachytherapy. The implants are put in place and not removed. Very low doses of radiation are given, and the radiation stops over time.

What happens after brachytherapy?

You will recover from the procedure, then go to your hospital room. Or you will be released to go home. If you are able to go home, have an adult family member or friend drive you.

If you stay in the hospital

Some types of brachytherapy need you to be in the hospital for a few days. You will need to follow specific rules to protect others from the effects of the radiation while it is active inside your body. Generally, treatment may include:

  • Staying in a private room

  • Hospital staff time spending as little time as possible in your room when care is being given

  • Placing portable shields between you and staff or visitors

Limits for visitors may include:

  • Not allowing pregnant women or children under a certain age to visit

  • Limiting how long visitors may stay

  • Limiting how close visitors can get to you

If you are discharged home, you may have additional visitor limitations. Ask your healthcare provider for guidelines.

If you go home

Follow any directions you are given for caring for yourself between treatments. These may include:

  • Take any prescribed medicine exactly as directed.

  • Care for your bandage and implant site as directed.

  • If you have an implant tube left in place, follow your healthcare provider’s directions for taking care of it.

  • Follow your healthcare provider’s directions about not putting weight or pressure on the implant site.

  • Follow any radiation safety measures you are given.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or procedure, make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason you are having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • What the possible side effects or complications are

  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how you will get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems

  • How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Neil Grossman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
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