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Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)

Internal radiotherapy means giving radiotherapy to the cancer from inside the body. It is called brachytherapy or endobronchial radiotherapy.

You usually have treatment as an outpatient in the radiotherapy department. You might have 1 treatment or a course of 2 or 3 treatments.

The treatment gives a high dose of radiation to the cancer but very little to surrounding tissues. It can shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms and help you feel more comfortable. It might slow the growth of the cancer and it can reduce pain.

Your doctor might suggest internal radiotherapy if the cancer is blocking or partly blocking an airway. A narrow airway can make you breathless. The radiotherapy can help you breathe more easily again. You might have this treatment in combination with other treatments.

Planning the treatment

The radiotherapy team carefully plans your treatment. They work out exactly where the cancer is in the airway or lung and how much radiation you need to treat it.

Before the treatment

Your nurse might spray your throat beforehand to numb it. You might also have a medicine to make you drowsy. You have it through a small tube into a vein in your hand or arm.

The nurse or doctor gently put a tube called a bronchoscope into your mouth. It goes down into your windpipe (airway) and the doctor can see the blocked area.

The bronchoscope contains a much smaller tube called a catheter. The doctor takes out the bronchoscope but the catheter is left behind.

You have a CT scan to make sure the catheter is in the right place. Your doctor uses this scan to plan your treatment.

Photo of a CT scanner

Having the treatment

The radiographer attaches the catheter to the brachytherapy machine. The staff leave the room but they can see you on CCTV all the time. The radiographer operates the treatment machine from outside the room.

A small radioactive ball called a source passes from the machine into the catheter. The source stops in the area of the cancer to give a dose of radiotherapy. This takes between 10 to 20 minutes.

Diagram showing how you have internal radiotherapy for lung cancer.png

After treatment

After treatment the radioactive ball goes back into the machine. The staff come back into the room. Your nurse or radiographer removes the catheter.

You are not radioactive after treatment and it is safe to be with other people.

Side effects

You might have a sore throat for up to 2 weeks after treatment. You might also have a cough.

You may feel breathless or have more phlegm for about a week afterwards. Speak to your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects. They can give you medicines to reduce them.

Last reviewed: 
04 Dec 2019
  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2019

  • Metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up

    D. Planchard and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2018, 29 (4)192-237.

  • Management of lung cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network, 2014

  • Radiotherapy guidelines for treatment of lung cancer
    London: North and East, 2014

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