Internal radiotherapy with radioactive metal (brachytherapy) | Cancer Research UK
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Internal radiotherapy with radioactive metal (brachytherapy)

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This page tells you about internal radiotherapy treatment with radioactive metals. There is information about


What brachytherapy is

Internal radiotherapy treatment using a radioactive metal is known as brachytherapy. There are different types of brachytherapy techniques for different cancers. These split into 2 main categories – Low Dose Rate (LDR) and High Dose Rate (HDR) brachytherapy.

Brachytherapy uses specialised equipment which is placed inside the body as close to the tumour as possible. The equipment can stay inside you for a few minutes, or a few days. Or the equipment might be used to place small, radioactive seeds that stay permanently in the body. It depends on the type of treatment you have. You might have to stay overnight in the hospital or attend several outpatient appointments over a few weeks.

Brachytherapy can be given in combination with external radiotherapy treatment or by itself.


Equipment used

Some brachytherapy treatments are given using specialist applicators. The applicators are hollow tubes that the doctor puts into or as close to the area of cancer as possible. There are different types of applicator for different areas of the body. You have the applicators inserted in the operating room. You either have a general anaesthetic or a spinal epidural (when you have no feeling from below your waist).

Some treatments use radioactive seeds. Using specialised equipment, the seeds are placed in the area of the cancer and stay there permanently. They are tiny and don't cause any problems.


Internal radiotherapy machines

There are different types of brachytherapy machines. To give the treatment, the doctor or radiographer connects the machine to the applicators. A radioactive pellet travels out of the machine, into the applicators. While you have treatment, you can't feel or see anything happening.

Some machines are in your ward room. One type of machine gives a constant dose of radiation and can be turned off when you have visitors. Some hospitals use a pulsed dose brachytherapy machine (PDR machine). Every hour or so, your nurse connects you to the PDR machine for your treatment. At other times you are free to have visitors.


Low dose rate treatment

A low dose rate treatment usually takes between 12 to 24 hours.

The radiation treatment might go into your body through a tube attached to a machine, which the nurses control. Or you might have seeds inserted into the tumour. These seeds release radiation, so for the first few days you usually need to be alone in a room with limited visitors. But after a few days the radiation is at a very low level and you can be close to other people as normal.


High dose rate treatment

High dose rate treatment machines give treatments over a shorter period of time. The treatment may last between 10 and 40 minutes.

You are taken into a specialist room and the applicators are connected to the brachytherapy machine. A radioactive pellet leaves the machine and travels into each applicator individually, releasing a dose of radiation. Once the applicators are disconnected from the machine, you are free to be around other people.


After treatment and side effects

Once the radioactive applicators are removed, the radioactivity disappears. You can usually go home the same day, or the next day.

When you have radioactive seeds put into the tumour site, you may need to stay overnight before you can go home and be around other people.

Your doctor, specialist nurse or radiographer will advise you on aftercare and any side effects.


For more information

Find out about

Internal radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy safety procedures

Types of internal radiotherapy

Side effects of radiotherapy

Coping physically with cancer

Coping emotionally with cancer

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Updated: 4 May 2016