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 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.

This treatment may be done along with external beam therapy to help destroy tumor cells for certain types of cancer. It is often used in the treatment of the following cancers:

  • Breast

  • Cervix

  • Eye

  • Head and neck

  • Prostate

  • Uterus

  • Vagina

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

How does brachytherapy work?

Brachytherapy can be given in 3 ways:

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

  • Interstitial treatment. The 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.

You may need anesthesia when 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.

Generally, you will be treated on an outpatient basis when you have brachytherapy. If you have high dose therapy, you will 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 consist of the following:

  • 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 which may include:

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

    • How long visitors may stay

    • How close visitors can get to you

  • If you are discharged home, you may have additional visitor limitations. Check with your health care provider for guidelines.

How long does the radiation last?

How long the radiation lasts will depend on the type of treatment given. Your health care provider will determine the brachytherapy type based on:

  • The type of cancer you have

  • The location of the cancer

  • Other factors

If the brachytherapy implant is a low dose implant, it 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 one, you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days. The radiation gets weaker each day. This means you will most likely be discharged after a few days. There may be certain safety measures to be taken at home. Your health care provider will give you specific instructions, if needed.

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

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