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What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is a type of radiation treatment that can be used to manage multiple types of cancer, including cancer of the prostate, cervix, endometrium, breast, skin, bronchus, esophagus, and head and neck, soft tissue sarcomas, and several other types of cancer. Brachytherapy involves implanting small radioactive sources permanently or temporarily, depending upon the type of cancer. Sometimes, brachytherapy is referred to as "internal radiotherapy."


How does it work?

Brachytherapy treats cancer by placing tiny, radioactive sources, each about the size of a grain of rice, in or next to the tumor. The radiation damages the DNA within the cancer cells, inhibiting their ability to grow and reproduce. Depending on your type of cancer, the radioactive sources may be left in place permanently or only temporarily. In some instances, brachytherapy is used in conjunction with external beam radiation therapy to deliver a higher dose to a specific area.

There are two main types of brachytherapy:

  • HDR (high-dose rate) brachytherapy involves the temporary placement of a high-strength radioactive source next to or inside the tumor. It is delivered through a small catheter tube, and then removed usually in a few minutes. HDR brachytherapy is typically given in multiple doses.
  • LDR (low-dose rate) brachytherapy involves placing radiation sources in the tumor area temporarily or permanently. Permanent implants often require anesthesia, a surgical procedure and a brief stay in the hospital. Temporary implants are left inside the body for minutes, hours or days, depending on the type of brachytherapy.
Docter with patient

Benefits of treatment

If brachytherapy is recommended as part of your treatment, here’s what you can expect:

  • The number and duration of treatments depend on your cancer type, your overall treatment plan, and the way your tumor responds to treatments before brachytherapy.
  • Depending on the cancer type, brachytherapy may be delivered over multiple sessions.
  • In most cases, brachytherapy can be performed on an outpatient basis, meaning you can go home after treatment.
  • Typically, patients are able to continue with daily activities after treatment.

Possible side effects

The side effects of brachytherapy are typically localized to the area being treated. Side effects depend on a number of factors, such as the type and stage of cancer, and any other ongoing health conditions. When discussing your treatment, it is always important to ask your doctor about what side effects may occur given the details of your specific case.

Typical short-term or "acute" side effects may include:

  • Fatigue for a short period following treatment
  • Bruising, swelling, bleeding, discharge or discomfort at the treatment site (usually resolve within a few days following completion of treatment)

Treatment team

Brachytherapy is administered to you by a team of highly qualified healthcare professionals who specialize in treating cancer. Some of the typical members of the team are listed below; depending on your particular case, other specialists may be asked to join the team.

Medical Team

Common misperceptions about brachytherapy

  • If HDR brachytherapy is used, no radioactive sources remain in your body after each treatment session is completed. There is no radiation risk to friends or family.
  • If LDR brachytherapy is used—and radioactive sources are implanted permanently (not temporarily)—the radiation levels are very low and decrease over time. After the seeds are implanted, you do not become radioactive and are not a hazard to other people, but your doctor may recommend some precautions.
  • You can’t see, feel, or smell the radiation source during treatment.
  • Most patients can continue normal daily activities after treatment.

Have questions about brachytherapy? We have helpful answers for you.

Find answers to common questions on our FAQ page.