Temporary brachytherapy for prostate cancer

Temporary brachytherapy (pronounced brack-ee-therapy) is when radioactive pellets are put into your prostate gland. The pellets release radiation to destroy nearby cancer cells. Your doctor takes them out at the end of the treatment. Once they've been taken out, you're not radioactive.

With brachytherapy, your doctor puts the radioactive source as close to the cancer as possible. So that the cancer gets a high dose but nearby tissues and further away the levels of radiation are low. 

Temporary brachytherapy is also called high dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy.

Depending on your cancer, you might have a different type of brachytherapy called permanent seed brachytherapy.

When you have high dose rate brachytherapy

You might have temporary brachytherapy for prostate cancer that:

  • hasn’t spread outside the prostate gland. This is localised prostate cancer
  • has spread into the tissues around the prostate gland. This is locally advanced prostate cancer

Doctors in the UK recommend the best treatment for you depending on your risk group. They use a system called the Cambridge Prognostic Group (CPG).

Your doctor might recommend you have temporary brachytherapy in combination with external radiotherapy if you have a CPG  3, 4 or 5 localised or locally advanced prostate cancer.

Your doctor may also recommend you have hormone therapy for a few months before the radiotherapy treatment. The hormone therapy shrinks the prostate cancer and makes it easier to put the pellets into the right place.

Before treatment

You meet members of your treatment team. You sign the consent form to agree to the treatment and can ask questions. It helps to write down all your questions beforehand to take with you. The more you know about what is going to happen, the more confident you will feel.

The radiotherapy team

A member of the radiotherapy team tells you about:

  • the treatment you're going to have
  • the benefits
  • the possible risks
  • what to expect afterwards

The anaesthetist

The anaesthetist gives you the anaesthetic and looks after you during the treatment. They make sure you’re fit enough to have it.

The nurse specialist

The nurse checks your:

  • general health
  • weight
  • blood pressure
  • pulse
  • temperature

You might also have a heart tracing (ECG).


You need to tell the treatment team if you are taking any medicines. If you are taking blood thinning drugs you might need to stop taking them up to 2 weeks before having the radiotherapy.

You might start taking a medicine called tamsulosin. It helps you to pass urine. And your doctor might give you antibiotics. They will tell you how long you need to take these medicines for. 


You stop eating from 4 to 6 hours before the treatment if you're having anaesthetic. But you can drink water until 2 hours beforehand.

The treatment day

You might go into the hospital ward on the morning of the treatment, or you might go the evening before. Your nurse will give you elastic stockings to wear to reduce the risk of blood clots.

You might need to empty your bowels and bladder. To empty your bowels you might have a liquid medicine called a laxative to drink or an enema. An enema is a liquid that you put into your back passage  

A member of the treatment team takes you to the operating theatre. A nurse or anaesthetist puts a small tube called a cannula into a vein in the back of your hand. You might have a medicine into the cannula to make you feel sleepy. And your anaesthetist might put a thin tube into your back to give a spinal anaesthetic so that you feel nothing below the waist. Or you might have a general anaesthetic so that you are asleep.

Preparing for treatment

Your doctor puts a thin tube called a catheter into your penis. The catheter shows the position of the urethra within the prostate gland on ultrasound. It also drains urine from the bladder during the procedure.

Your doctor puts an ultrasound probe into your back passage (rectum). It gives a clear picture of your prostate on a screen. Using needles, the doctor puts between 15 to 20 small tubes into your prostate through the area of skin between the scrotum and anus (the perineum).

Diagram showing a high dose rate brachytherapy

Once the tubes are in place the doctor takes out the ultrasound probe. You then go to the recovery room, where you will wake from the anaesthetic. You will then be collected for your planning scan.

Planning scan

The CT scan shows the exact size and position of the cancer in the prostate gland. It also shows the position of the tubes. It takes about 15 minutes. You might also have an MRI scan that takes about 15 minutes.

Photo of a CT scanner

You lie on the scanner couch with the treatment area exposed.

Once you are in position the radiographers move the couch up and through the scanner. You need to lie very still. Your radiographers leave the room and the scan starts. It takes about 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. The radiographers watch from the room next door. 

After the scan

You go back to the ward for about 2 hours. During this time the radiotherapy team works out exactly how much radiotherapy you need.

You need to stay as still as possible so that the tubes in the prostate don’t move. You might have support pads under your legs and bottom. Your legs will be numb if you are having a spinal anaesthetic.

If you feel any soreness or pain, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers and keep you as comfortable as possible.

You might have another CT scan.

Having treatment

You will be taken to the treatment room. The radiographers attach the brachytherapy machine to the tubes in your prostate. The radiographers leave the room but they are nearby and can see you on a CCTV screen. You can speak to them if you need anything.

This part of the treatment takes between 15 to 40 minutes. You need to stay very still.

The computer controlled radiotherapy machine passes small radioactive metal pellets through the tubes. This gives the precise dose of radiotherapy that you need.

When the treatment has finished the radioactive pellets go back into the machine. Your radiographers gently take out the tubes. This can be painful but you can have painkillers and gas and air if you need it.

After treatment

You are taken back to your ward. You usually still have a catheter to drain your urine but your nurse takes it out after a few hours or the following day.

You stay in hospital overnight and go home the next day. You might need to stay in longer if you have problems passing urine.

Side effects of temporary brachytherapy

Temporary brachytherapy can cause some side effects. Everyone is different and the side effects vary from person to person. You may not have all the effects mentioned.

Pain and swelling

You may have some swelling and bruising between your legs where the needles were put in. Your nurse will give you painkillers. Warm baths can also help.

Urine problems

You might have a burning feeling when you pass urine and may see some blood for the first few days. You might also need to pass urine more often than usual or have problems passing urine. Try to drink at least 2 litres of water a day. 

Avoid or cut down on drinks that might irritate the bladder such as fizzy drinks and alcohol. Also limit caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and coke. 


You might feel tired for the first few days after treatment as you recover from the anaesthetic. Rest when you need to.

Blood in semen

You might notice blood in your semen Open a glossary item for a few weeks after the treatment. Ejaculation can also be painful at first but tends to settle in time. After a while you may notice that you have very little or no semen due to the radiotherapy.

Problems with your bowels

You may have constipation, loose poo or diarrhoea for a few weeks due to inflammation of the bowel. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have it. They can give you medicine to try and help with these symptoms.

Long term side effects

Some side effects can continue for months or years after treatment. These include leakage of urine and erection problems.   

You are not radioactive

All the radioactive material is removed after treatment. So it’s safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children when you get home

Follow up

You have a follow up outpatient appointment about 6 weeks after the treatment. If you go on to have external radiotherapy you start that within 2 to 4 weeks of the HDR treatment. You have regular blood tests to check the level of a protein called prostate specific antigen (PSA) in your blood.

  • Prostate cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2019. Last updated December 2021

  • High dose rate brachytherapy in combination with external-beam radiotherapy for localised prostate cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2006

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019 

  • The Royal College of Radiologists' audit of prostate brachytherapy in the year 2012
    AJ Stewart and others
    Clinical Oncology, 2015. Volume 27, Pages 330-336

  • Prostate high dose rate brachytherapy. Information for patients
    University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. Last updated 2019

  • High dose rate prostate brachytherapy: an overview of the rationale, experience and emerging applications in the treatment of prostate cancer
    A Challapalli and others
    The British Journal of Radiology, 2012. Vol 85

Last reviewed: 
14 Feb 2023
Next review due: 
14 Feb 2026

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