Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiation treatment that places radioactive sources directly inside the body. Depending on the location and size of your tumor, radiation can be delivered with low-dose rate, high-dose rate, or permanent implants. This targeted approach provides high concentrations of radiation to shrink tumors while limiting damage to the surrounding tissue. Your radiation oncology team will work with you to determine the most effective brachytherapy treatment plan.
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What Is Brachytherapy?
When Is Brachytherapy Recommended?
Brachytherapy is recommended for tumors in specific areas that have not yet spread or metastasized. It can be used as a sole treatment or alongside other radiation strategies. In addition, brachytherapy can be used after surgery to remove the remaining cancer cells.
Benefits of Brachytherapy Treatment
Due to the precise nature of the procedure, brachytherapy is a highly effective cancer treatment. This results in a shorter overall treatment time because radiation can be delivered in higher doses. In addition, brachytherapy may cause fewer side effects and minimize damage to the surrounding tissue.
Types of Brachytherapy
There are two main types of brachytherapy – low-dose rate and high-dose rate. Patients may receive a single treatment or treatments many times a week depending on the location, size, and type of cancer.
Low-Dose Rate Implants
For low-dose rate brachytherapy, the radiation source remains in the body for a few days or may be permanent. This ensures that radiation is slowly and continuously released over time.
High-Dose Rate Implants
As the name suggests, high-dose rate implants deliver all of the radiation in a few minutes. This is not to be confused with “high dose” – the speed at which radiation is delivered is not the same as the dose that is delivered, and high-dose rate is usually similar in effect to lose-dose rate. Typically, the source is placed in the body for 10 – 20 minutes at a time and is always removed after the treatment is done so nothing radioactive is left in the body.
How Does Brachytherapy Treatment Work?
Brachytherapy treatment involves the placement of radioactive sources inside or near tumors to reduce cancerous cells. To position the radioactive material accurately, special devices or applicators are used. In some cases, these sources travel through catheters to the tumor for a prescribed amount of time using high-dose rate remote afterloading machines. Intracavity and interstitial treatment are the main techniques for brachytherapy treatment. Frequently, brachytherapy is performed under anesthesia for comfort.
With intracavity treatment, the radioactive sources are placed in a body cavity near the tumor, such as the cervix, vagina, or windpipe. Radiation will be contained in a small tube or cylinder designed to fit the opening. The device can be placed by hand or using a computerized machine.
On the other hand, interstitial treatment indicates that the radioactive sources are put directly into body tissue, such as the breast or prostate. The material is contained in wires, balloons, or seeds and inserted using a catheter.
Cancers Treated with Brachytherapy
As an internal radiation treatment, brachytherapy can be used for a variety of tumors. The procedure is commonly used to treat prostate and gynecologic cancers such as cervical, uterine (endometrial), and vaginal. Other cancers treated with brachytherapy include:
- Brain cancer
- Breast cancer
- Head and neck cancers
- Lung cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Skin cancer
- Soft tissue cancers
What to Expect During Brachytherapy Treatment
In low-dose rate and permanent brachytherapy treatments, anesthesia or sedation is typically used to help patients remain comfortable and still while the implants are inserted. The radiation team will place the device near the tumor, allowing the radiation to effectively target cancerous cells for several hours or days. Most procedures are outpatient and you go home after a few hours. Radiation exposure to others, particularly after prostate seed implants (the most common LDR procedure in 2022), is minimal initially and drops to zero over a few months.
For high-dose rate brachytherapy, remote afterloading machines allow radiation oncologists to complete the radiation part of the treatment in as little as 10 – 20 minutes, although the placement of the device may take minutes or hours. This outpatient procedure does not typically require a hospital stay. During the session, the radiation team will observe from a nearby room in case you have any questions or concerns. Depending on the area treated, you may receive several treatments over the course of a week.
How to Prepare for Brachytherapy
Before brachytherapy treatment, you will meet with a radiation oncologist who specializes in treating cancer. This consultation is important to go over the location and extent of your cancer, overall health, and goals to determine an individual treatment plan. In addition, your radiation team will discuss benefits, side effects, and how to best care for yourself during treatment.
Prior to brachytherapy, you may undergo MRI, CT scan, or X-ray imaging to help the doctor determine a treatment plan. These scans ensure that the radiation source devices are positioned in the most effective location for tumor removal.
Patients with permanent implants may have a few restrictions at first and then can quickly return to their normal activities. These patients may need to initially limit their time around pregnant women or children. Low-dose and high-dose rate treatments may result in a few side effects such as fatigue, tenderness, and discomfort. You may need to limit high-effort activities for a few days. Once the radioactive material is removed or has decayed, you will not give off radiation and can have visitors without restrictions.
Side Effects and Risks of Brachytherapy
Brachytherapy treatment results in few side effects due to the minimally invasive nature of the procedure. Some patients report tenderness and swelling where the applicator was inserted. The radiation itself may cause temporary or long-term side-effects related to the nearby organs such as urinary or bowel frequency or urgency.
Choosing SERO for Your Brachytherapy Treatment in Charlotte
With 40+ years of radiation oncology excellence in the Charlotte area, SERO is uniquely qualified to provide effective brachytherapy treatment. Our board-certified radiation oncologists and other members of the team are dedicated to delivering excellent care. Using unparalleled expertise and the comprehensive resources of partner organizations, we help plan and execute high-quality cancer treatments. Our team is here to guide you through your brachytherapy procedure from consultation to recovery.
Brachytherapy Treatment FAQs
Is Brachytherapy Painful?
Inserting the applicator and radioactive source device may cause some pain, but you should feel no discomfort once it is placed. If you have any concerns, be sure to let your caregivers know and they will be able to reduce any side effects. Anesthesia and medications can help relieve pain and discomfort during brachytherapy.
How Long Does It Take to Recover From Brachytherapy?
Although recovery time varies from patient to patient, you should be able to return to normal activities within a few days of brachytherapy treatment. Due to the minimally invasive nature of brachytherapy, most side effects go away once the procedure is over. Some patients feel tired for up to a few weeks after treatment. Talk to your doctor to determine the expected recovery time and how to best care for yourself after brachytherapy.
What Is the Success Rate of Brachytherapy Treatment?
In many studies, brachytherapy is found to have a very high success rate. This procedure is proven to be comparably effective to other cancer treatment strategies, such as external beam radiation therapy. In addition, brachytherapy patients often suffer fewer side effects due to the targeted nature of the treatment.