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Radiotherapy wires

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about internal radiotherapy using radioactive wires. There is information about


Cancers treated by wires

Radiotherapy wires, tubes and needles may be used to treat a number of cancers including those in the

  • Mouth and lip
  • Prostate
  • Nasopharynx
  • Breast
  • Vagina
  • Oesophagus
  • Lung
  • Penis
  • Urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the body)

Having radiotherapy wires

There are 2 main ways of using radiotherapy wires, tubes or needles. Giving radiotherapy in this way is called brachytherapy. Doctors put very thin radioactive wires into your body close to the cancer. They do this while you are under a general or local anaesthetic in the operating room. Or, they may use fine hollow needles or tubes, and then put a radioactive metal into the hollow tubes. 

You may have an X-ray afterwards to make sure that the wires are in the right position. You may have all your radiotherapy this way. Or you may also have external radiotherapy.

While you have the wires in your body, you stay in a separate room. Staff and visitors need to follow safety procedures until the wires are removed. This is usually after 3 to 4 days, but may be up to a week depending on which part of your body is being treated. You may have the wires taken out under general anaesthetic as this can be painful.

Wires in your mouth can be very uncomfortable. They can make eating and talking difficult. You may need to have a soft or liquid diet while the needles are in place. Your nurse shows you how to keep your mouth clean by using a mouthwash.


Coping with isolation

Sometimes the treatment requires you to stay by yourself in a room, and have limited contact with others. This is because you are radioactive and the radiation can affect others. Being looked after in a single room can feel lonely. Some people find it frightening. It can help to talk to the nurses about your worries. They can reassure you.

Taking in some of your personal things can make the room feel more homely. Books, photographs and an ornament or two can brighten it up. You can also take in a mobile phone, laptop, electronic tablet or music player to make the time pass more enjoyably and keep in touch with friends and family.


Removing the wires

The wires are taken out once you have had the correct dose of radiation. This may be

  • After 2 days, if the wires are a booster treatment after external radiotherapy
  • Or up to a week if you have it as your only treatment

You are given painkillers before they are removed, and gas and air is also available. However in some instances local or general anaesthetic may be used to remove the wires. 


Side effects of radiotherapy wires

Once the wires are taken out, the area feels sore for up to 2 or 3 weeks afterwards. Your nurses give you painkillers to take.

Other side effects depend on the area being treated. A member of your radiotherapy treatment team can tell you what to expect.


More information about radiotherapy

Find out about

Internal radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy safety procedures

External radiotherapy

Side effects of radiotherapy

Coping with radiotherapy emotionally

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum with Cancer Chat

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Updated: 4 May 2016