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Internal radiotherapy for breast cancer

Find out about what happens when you have radiotherapy from inside the breast and about possible side effects.

What is internal radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy to the breast is also called breast brachytherapy. Brachytherapy is a way of giving radiation directly to the area where the cancer was removed. 

What happens

You have a general or a local anaesthetic. The doctor puts thin hollow tubes or an inflatable balloon into your breast. These are called applicators.

Diagram showing how you have internal radiotherapy for breast cancer

The applicators can stay in your breast for several days. During this time you need to stay in hospital.

You have treatment once or twice a day. You go to a special room in the radiotherapy department each time you have treatment. You can have painkillers beforehand if you need them. Your treatment team will make sure that you are as comfortable as possible. 

The radiographer connects a machine to the applicators. Then they leave the room and watch you from the next room on a CCTV screen. 

A small radioactive pellet travels into the applicators. Once the pellet is inside the applicator, it gives off a radiation dose. This is not painful and you won't feel anything during the treatment.

This treatment doesn't make you radioactive. You can have visitors while you are in hospital.

After treatment

Your doctor or nurse gently removes the applicators after the last treatment. They can give you painkillers beforehand if you would like them.

You can go home afterwards. The treatment team will tell you how to look after the treatment area and they will let you know about futher check up appointments.

Your skin might go red or darker in the treatment area. The red or darker areas can also feel sore. Your nurse or doctors can give you painkillers to reduce the soreness. They can also give you creams to soothe the skin. The soreness usually goes away within 2 to 4 weeks of ending the treatment. 

Radiotherapy during surgery

Some women with early breast cancer might have radiotherapy during breast surgery. This is called Intrabeam radiotherapy. It is still being researched and is only available in a few hospitals in the UK.

During surgery, the doctor puts an applicator inside the breast for 20 to 30 minutes. This gives radiotherapy into the area where the cancer has been removed. 

This is a new way of having radiotherapy. You might have it as part of a clinical trial. 

Information and help