What is Brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy, also called internal radiation therapy, is a cancer treatment in which a radiation source is placed inside the body. Tiny implants in the form of seeds, wires or balloons are placed in or near cancer tumors. This allows high-dose radiation to reach small areas. Brachytherapy is sometimes combined with external radiation therapy, and it’s often used to treat cancers of the prostate, head, neck, breast, cervix, eye and other areas.

For certain types of cancer, brachytherapy is as effective as ― or more effective than ― external treatments. Advantages of brachytherapy include:

  • Delivers high doses of radiation to small areas
  • Takes less time than external radiation therapies
  • Confines radiation to a small area, causing less damage to healthy tissue

The type of brachytherapy used depends on several factors, including tumor size and location, and whether other cancer treatments are needed. Mercy offers three types of brachytherapy ― high-dose brachytherapy, low-dose brachytherapy and permanent brachytherapy.

High-Dose-Rate (HDR) Brachytherapy

HDR brachytherapy places a powerful radiation source in the body for a few minutes at a time. This allows high-dose radiation to be delivered in short bursts. Several short treatment sessions may be needed over a few days or a few weeks. A form of this therapy called skin HDR brachytherapy treats basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas (nonmelanoma skin cancers) without surgery. Instead of implanting a radiation source in the body, a radioactive substance is placed directly on the skin.

Low-Dose-Rate (LDR) Brachytherapy

LDR brachytherapy allows low-dose radiation to be delivered over a longer time. Tiny radioactive implants are placed in the body for several days (or sometimes longer). The implants gradually stop giving off radiation.

Permanent Brachytherapy

With permanent brachytherapy, implants remain in the body after treatment. They may temporarily give off a small amount of radiation, but this eventually stops. Limiting time around other people or other safety measures may be needed.

Your brachytherapy treatment plan will be tailored to your cancer type and unique needs. Your Mercy care team will explain your plan and provide a treatment schedule. Depending on the number of implants and size, you’ll receive some type of anesthesia (local, general or other) during placement. Imaging tests are done to check the placement.

You may stay in the hospital or go home in between treatments, depending on your treatment plan.  Some implants are temporary and are removed after treatment, while others remain in place permanently.

How Brachytherapy is Put in Place

Most brachytherapy is placed using a thin, flexible tube called a catheter. A larger device (or applicator) may also be used. The catheter or applicator is positioned, then a small radioactive implant is placed inside it. Techniques for placing implants include:

  • Interstitial brachytherapy – Implants are placed directly into cancer tumors, such as tumors in the prostate.
  • Intracavity brachytherapy – Implants are placed in or near body cavities, such as in the uterus for gynecologic cancer.
  • Episcleral brachytherapy – Implants are attached to the eyes to treat eye tumors. 

Post Brachytherapy Care

Following brachytherapy treatment, your body may give off tiny amounts of radiation. Your care team will tell you if you should limit contact with pregnant women or young children. And some implants can trigger metal detectors during security screenings.

Brachytherapy may cause temporary side effects, including fatigue, swelling or tenderness in the treatment area. Most side effects go away after treatment, but it’s possible to have long-lasting effects or experience them months or years later. Talk with your Mercy care team about the potential side effects of internal radiation treatment and ways to manage them.

Additionally, brachytherapy for prostate cancer can impact male fertility. Share any concerns with your care team, who will discuss options for preserving fertility before treatment.

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