Brachytherapy or Internal Radiation Therapy
Brachytherapy or Internal Radiation Therapy is a form of radiotherapy wherein the radiation source is placed inside or very close to the tumour. Brachytherapy allows specialists to treat tumours with high doses.
Brachytherapy is largely used for the treatment of cervical cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, endometrial cancer, uterine cancer, head and neck cancer and eye cancer. It can also help in the management of soft tissue sarcomas.
Brachytherapy would be recommended alone or in combination with other cancer treatments like surgery, external beam radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Brachytherapy also helps in reducing damage to the surrounding healthy tissues.
How Does Brachytherapy Work?
Brachytherapy is a minimally invasive procedure. These sessions are planned using specialised computer software. During the procedure, the radiation source is directly placed inside or next to the tumour – this way, the tumour receives maximum radiation. Through its highly localised and precise approach, brachytherapy minimises damage to the surrounding healthy tissues.
Special applicators are used to place the radiation source in the target area with the help of imaging methods, namely MRI or ultrasound.
There are two types of brachytherapy: temporary brachytherapy and permanent brachytherapy.
1. Temporary Brachytherapy
Temporary brachytherapy is used to treat cancers present in the body cavity, such as the prostate, uterus or vagina. The brachytherapy could be of high-dose-rate (HDR) or low-dose-rate (LDR).
Temporary brachytherapy needs a delivery device, such as a catheter, applicator or needle to be placed before the radiation delivery. The radioactive source is administered through this delivery device. This device may be removed after each session or after the last session. The HDR brachytherapy may take up to 10 to 30 minutes, whereas the LDR brachytherapy may take anywhere between 20 to 50 hours.
2. Permanent Brachytherapy
During permanent brachytherapy, a needle filled with radioactive seeds is inserted into the tumour. The seeds are left behind, whereas the needle is removed. These seeds are left to decay gradually, and as they decay they emit radiation, which kills the cancer cells. One need not worry about being radioactive for a long period as these sources eventually stop emitting radiation.
Advantages of Brachytherapy
- As a localised therapy, brachytherapy supports high-level treatment accuracy.
- Through conformal targeting, brachytherapy helps reduce damage to the surrounding healthy tissues.
- By facilitating high-dose radiation therapy, brachytherapy helps in reducing the overall treatment duration.
- It may also help patients prevent or delay organ loss by reducing the need for surgery.
- As a palliative treatment, brachytherapy helps in reducing pain and discomfort for the patients.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, brachytherapy does not make you lose your hair. Since the radiation source is placed close to the tumour and the radiation emitted will not travel throughout the body, there is no risk of hair fall for patients undergoing brachytherapy.
Some of the common side effects of brachytherapy include bruising, swelling, bleeding, pain and discomfort in the treatment area. Brachytherapy delivered for prostate cancer and gynaecological cancers may also cause short-term urinary problems like pain and incontinence. In some cases, it may also lead to constipation, diarrhoea and rectal bleeding. Among prostate cancer patients, brachytherapy may lead to erectile dysfunction too.
It is best to talk to your treatment doctor before the procedure who will help you with necessary information that will eventually help you make informed decisions.
No, brachytherapy and chemotherapy are different. Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy, i.e., it kills cancer cells throughout the body. Brachytherapy, on the other hand, is a form of localised radiation therapy given to treat cancer of a particular organ like the prostate gland, breasts, uterus, etc.
After temporary brachytherapy, the radiation source will be removed from the body, and the patient will no longer be radioactive. When the radiation source is inside your body, patients must avoid seeing visitors as it might be harmful to them.
In the case of permanent brachytherapy, although the radiation source will be inside the body, it emits radiation in low doses. Therefore, it is relatively safe for the people around. However, the patients will need to talk to their doctors before the procedure to understand the risks.