Frequently asked questions
What types of cancer can be treated with brachytherapy?
Brachytherapy is a commonly used treatment for the following types of cancer:
- Cervical cancer
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer
- Head and neck cancers
In recent years, new technology has refined and improved brachytherapy techniques and it can now be used to treat tumors in many other parts of the body.
How does brachytherapy work?
Brachytherapy works by precisely targeting the cancerous tumor from inside the body. The source of radiation is placed directly inside or next to the tumor.1,2 This ‘tailored approach’ reduces the risk of any unnecessary damage to healthy tissue and organs that are close to the tumor hence reducing possible side effects.1,2
How effective is brachytherapy in treating cancer?
Studies have shown that brachytherapy is comparable to external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) and surgery in the treatment of many kinds of cancer.1 In addition studies have also shown that patients often have fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to other treatment options.1 Results can improve even further when used in combination with these other treatments.1,2
How long does brachytherapy treatment last?
The length of an individual’s brachytherapy treatment will depend on the type of cancer and treatment technique agreed between the patient and their healthcare team.
One of the recognized benefits of brachytherapy is the fact that patients typically spend very little time in hospital.3 Compared to other radiotherapy techniques, a course of high dose rate brachytherapy can be completed in less time (typically from 1-5 days) and patients typically have to make fewer visits to the radiotherapy clinic.3
Many brachytherapy procedures are performed on an outpatient basis making it more convenient for patients,1,2 particularly for those who have to work, those with young families, older patients and those who live some distance from treatment centres. Brachytherapy patients also tend to benefit from quicker recovery times (typically 2 to 5 days).1,2
What are the side effects of brachytherapy?
As for all cancer treatments, patients may experience side effects after their treatment with brachytherapy. As brachytherapy works by precisely targeting the cancerous tumor from inside the body, studies have shown that patients in general suffer fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to other treatments.1,2
Different patients respond in different ways to their treatment. The type and degree of side effects experienced vary due to a number of factors, such as the type of cancer being treated, the stage of the cancer and whether there are any other ongoing health problems. When discussing your treatment options, it is always important to ask your doctor about what side effects may occur with the different available treatments.
In general, side effects that occur just after your treatment are referred to as acute side effects. These generally disappear in a matter of weeks1,2 and are often related to the procedure itself or to the working of the radiotherapy.
Long-term side effects usually occur in a small number of patients and are generally an effect of the radiation on adjacent tissues or organs.
Studies have shown that patients in general suffer fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to any other treatment.1,2 For more information, please refer to the specific cancer sections.
Will my radiotherapy affect other people?
If temporary brachytherapy is used, no radioactive sources remain in the body after treatment. Therefore, there is no radiation risk to friends or family.1
When undergoing permanent brachytherapy treatment (also known as ‘seed therapy’), a common concern is that the patient will give off a degree of radiation as low dose radioactive sources (seeds) are left in the body after treatment. However, the radiation levels are very low and decrease over time.1,2 Once the seeds are implanted the patient does not become radioactive - only the seeds are radioactive. The patient is not a hazard to other people, although it is sometimes recommended as a precaution that they avoid holding young children or being close to pregnant women during the first two months after the implant procedure.2
If I have brachytherapy will I have to have any other procedures as well?
This will depend on the extent of the cancer. Sometimes, brachytherapy is carried out with other treatments too. Your doctor will be able to advise you on what will be the best approach.
1. Patel RR and Arthur DW. Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America 2006;20(1):97–118.
2. National Cancer Institute. Available at: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/radiation. Accessed 2 February 2011.
3. Lawrence TS, Ten Haken RK, Giaccia A. In: Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 8th ed. DeVita VT Jr., Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA (Eds). Philadelphia, PA, LWW. 2008.