Brachytherapy is the most common type of internal radiation therapy. It is used to treat some types of cancer, including breast, cervical, prostate, uterine and vaginal. As with external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), the main treating specialist for brachytherapy is a radiation oncologist.
How brachytherapy works
How you have brachytherapy may vary between hospitals. Generally, sealed radioactive sources are placed inside the body, close to or inside the cancer. The sources produce gamma rays, which have the same effect on cancer as the x-rays used in EBRT, but act over a short distance only. It is a way of giving a high dose of radiation to the cancer with only a very low dose reaching surrounding tissues and organs.
The type of brachytherapy used depends on the type of cancer. It may include seeds, needles, wires, pellets or small mobile sources that move from a machine into the body through applicators (thin plastic tubes). Brachytherapy may be used alone or with EBRT.
The radiation oncologist will explain what treatment will involve and tell you whether you can have treatment during a day visit (outpatient) or will need a short stay in hospital (inpatient). You will have tests and scans to help your team decide where to place the radioactive sources and work out the correct dose to deliver to the cancer.
These tests may include an ultrasound, CT scan and/or MRI scan. The radiation oncologist will explain possible side effects and discuss any safety precautions. For some cancers, imaging tests, planning and treatment may all occur in the same session.
If you need to stay in hospital for treatment, take reading material and other activities to pass the time. You may also be able to watch television or listen to music. Check with your doctor what you can take into the room, as there may be restrictions.
What to expect at treatment sessions
Depending on the type of brachytherapy you are having, you may need to have a local anaesthetic to numb the area being treated, or a general anaesthetic so you will be unconscious for the treatment. The radiation sources will be positioned in your body, sometimes with the help of imaging scans (such as x-ray, ultrasound and CT) and computerised machines. You should not have any severe pain or feel ill during a course of brachytherapy.
If the radioactive sources are being held in place by an applicator, you may feel some discomfort, but your doctor can prescribe medicine to help you relax and relieve any pain. Once the applicator is removed, you may be sore or sensitive in the treatment area. After the treatment, you may have to limit physical and sexual activity and take some safety precautions for a period of time – your treatment team will advise you.
You may be told you are having high-dose-rate or low-dose-rate brachytherapy. Pulsed-dose-rate brachytherapy is not used often.
- High-dose-rate (HDR) uses a single source that releases high doses of radiation in short sessions, each lasting a number of minutes. The source is removed at the end of each session.
- Low-dose-rate (LDR) uses multiple sources or seeds that release radiation over days, weeks or months. The sources may be temporary or permanent.
- Pulsed-dose-rate (PDR) uses a single source that releases radiation for a few minutes every hour over a number of days. The source is removed at the end of treatment.
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Types of brachytherapy
Depending on the type of cancer and your radiation oncologist’s recommendation, the radioactive sources may be placed in your body for a limited time or permanently.
While the radioactive source is in place, some radiation may pass outside your body. For this reason, hospitals take certain safety precautions to avoid exposing staff and visitors to radiation. Staff will explain any restrictions before you start brachytherapy treatment.
In temporary brachytherapy, you may have one or more treatment sessions to deliver the full dose of radiation prescribed by the radiation oncologist. The radioactive source is inserted using applicators such as thin plastic tubes (catheters) or cylinders. The source is removed at the end of each treatment session. The applicator may be removed at the same time or left in place until after the final session.
Temporary brachytherapy is mostly used for prostate cancers and gynaecological cancers (such as cervical and vaginal cancers).
Safety precautions for temporary brachytherapy
If you have temporary brachytherapy, once the source is removed, you are not radioactive and there is no risk to other people. You won’t have to take any further precautions.
- High-dose-rate brachytherapy – this will be given for a few minutes at a time during multiple sessions. The radiation therapists will leave the room briefly during the treatment, but will be able to see and talk to you from another room. You may be able to have this treatment as an outpatient.
- Low-dose-rate or pulsed-dose-rate brachytherapy – the radioactive sources will deliver radiation over 1–6 days. For these types of brachytherapy, you will stay in hospital for a few days and will be in a dedicated treatment room on your own. This room is close to the main hospital ward and you can use an intercom to talk with staff and visitors outside the room. If you have concerns about being alone, talk to the treatment team.
For low-dose-rate or pulsed-dose-rate brachytherapy, precautions may include hospital staff only coming into the room for short periods of time, limiting visitors during treatment, visitors sitting away from you, and avoiding contact with children under 16 and pregnant women.
In permanent low-dose-rate brachytherapy, radioactive seeds about the size of a grain of rice are put inside special needles and implanted into the body while you are under general anaesthetic. The needles are removed, and the seeds are left in place to gradually decay. As the seeds decay, they slowly release small amounts of radiation over weeks or months. They will eventually stop releasing radiation, but they will not be removed.
Low-dose-rate brachytherapy is often used to treat early-stage prostate cancers.
Safety precautions for permanent brachytherapy
If you have permanent brachytherapy, you will be radioactive for a short time after the seeds are inserted. The radiation is usually not strong enough to be harmful to people around you, so it is safe to go home. However, you may need to avoid close contact with young children and pregnant women for a short time – your treatment team will advise you of any precautions to take.
You will normally be able to return to your usual activities a day or two after the seeds are inserted.
Other types of internal radiation therapy
For some cancers, you may be referred to a nuclear medicine specialist to have another type of internal radiation therapy.
Also known as radioisotope therapy, this involves radioactive material being taken by mouth as a capsule or liquid, or given by injection. The material spreads throughout the body, but particularly targets cancer cells. It delivers high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells with minimal damage to normal tissues.
Different radionuclides are used to treat different cancers. The most common radionuclide therapy is radioactive iodine, which is taken as a capsule and used to treat certain types of thyroid cancer.
Other radionuclide therapies include:
- peptide receptor radionuclide therapy (PRRT), which uses a small amount of a radioactive substance that has been combined with a cell-targeting protein (peptide). PRRT is given by an injection to treat neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) of the bowel, pancreas and lung.
- injection of a radioactive material combined with prostate specific membrane antigen to treat some advanced prostate cancers
- injection of a radioactive material with a substance called metaiodobenzylguanidine to treat some types of NETs or neuroblastoma
- injection with a small amount of bone-seeking radioactive liquid to target cancer that has spread to the bone
- injection of radioactive antibodies to treat lymphoma.
Selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT)
Also known as radioembolisation, SIRT stands for selective internal radiation therapy. This method uses tiny radioactive beads to deliver high doses of radiation to the liver. The beads are injected into a thin tube called a catheter, which is inserted into the main artery that supplies blood to the liver. Radiation from the beads damages the cancer cells and their blood supply. This means the cancers can’t get the nutrients they need and they shrink.
Understanding Radiation Therapy
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Expert content reviewers:
Prof June Corry, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Prof Bryan Burmeister, Senior Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Fraser Coast, Hervey Bay Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Jane Freeman, Accredited Practising Dietitian (Cancer specialist), Canutrition, NSW; Sinead Hanley, Consumer; David Jolly, Senior Medical Physicist, Icon Cancer Centre Richmond, VIC; Christine Kitto, Consumer; A/Prof Grace Kong, Nuclear Medicine Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Sasha Senthi, Radiation Oncologist, The Alfred Hospital and Monash University, VIC; John Spurr, Consumer; Chris Twyford, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Radiation Oncology, Cancer Rapid Assessment Unit and Outpatients, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Gabrielle Vigar, Nurse Unit Manager, Radiation Oncology/Cancer Outpatients, Cancer Program, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Radiation Therapy - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was last updated in February 2022.