Brachytherapy is a type of radiotherapy

Brachytherapy treatments provide precise, targeted treatment of various cancers. It is used in treatment of sites including but not limited to lung, prostate, breast, skin and surface, head and neck, rectum, and gynecological anatomy. It is utilized as a single modality or in combination with other treatments options such as external beam radiation therapy.

How does brachytherapy work?

Brachytherapy works by placing a source of radiation directly in, or next to the cancerous tumor inside the body. This allows the radiation to be precisely targeted to ensure the tumor receives the most effective dose to kill the cancer cells. This ‘tailored approach’ also reduces the risk of any unnecessary damage to healthy tissue and organs that are close to the tumor. Therefore, potential side effects are reduced.

Doctors deliver brachytherapy using multi-dimensional images and computer treatment planning software. They determine how, where, and for how long the radiation should be delivered in the body. The radiation is delivered precisely and accurately to the tumor by a small radioactive source via the use of special applicators which are positioned using various imaging techniques.

In high dose rate brachytherapy, the treatments typically last only a few minutes. A computer-controlled remote afterloader also delivers an intensity-modulated dose to the treatment area. Only a small number of sessions are needed, which span a few days or weeks.

What are the benefits of brachytherapy treatment?

There are a number of benefits of brachytherapy treatment that you may wish to consider when deciding the best treatment option for you.

These benefits may make it a potential treatment option compared to other cancer treatments, such as external beam radiotherapy or surgery.


  • Is very effective in treating cancer, as the radiation is delivered with a high level of accuracy
  • Has a minimized risk of side effects, due to the targeted and precise nature of delivering the radiotherapy from inside the body
  • Is a minimally invasive technique – i.e. it doesn’t involve extensive surgery
  • Can be performed on an outpatient basis – avoiding the need for an overnight stay in hospital in many cases
  • Requires very short treatment times (typically from 1 to 5 days)
  • Has short recovery times (typically 2 to 5 days) – people can usually return to everyday activities very quickly

How does brachytherapy compare to other treatments?

In terms of the effectiveness of treatment, studies have shown that brachytherapy is comparable to external beam radiotherapy and surgery when treating many types of cancer. However, studies have shown that patients generally experience fewer side effects after brachytherapy compared with other treatment options.

For some cancers, more than one type of treatment may be given. Brachytherapy can be used in combination with external beam radiotherapy (EBRT). This can help improve the overall effectiveness of the radiotherapy and limit the side effects from the radiation dose.

What can it be used to treat?

Brachytherapy is used by the Cancer Centers of Southwest Oklahoma to treat cervical and breast cancers.

Nutrition During Cancer Treatment

For more information about your nutritional needs during cancer treatment, please visit our Nutrition page.

Brachytherapy FAQ

Q. What types of cancer can be treated with brachytherapy?
A. Brachytherapy is a commonly used treatment for the following types of cancer:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Head and neck cancers

In recent years, new technology has refined and improved brachytherapy techniques. It can now be used to treat tumors in many other parts of the body.

Q. How does brachytherapy work?
A. Brachytherapy works by precisely targeting the cancerous tumor from inside the body. The source of radiation is placed directly inside or next to the tumor. This ‘tailored approach’ reduces the risk of any unnecessary damage to healthy tissue and organs that are close to the tumor. Therefore, possible side effects are reduced.

Q. How effective is brachytherapy in treating cancer?
A. Studies have shown that brachytherapy is comparable to external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) and surgery in the treatment of many kinds of cancer. In addition, studies also show that patients often have fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to other treatment options. Results can improve even further when used in combination with these other treatments.

Q. How long does brachytherapy treatment last?
A. The length of an individual’s brachytherapy treatment will depend on the type of cancer and treatment technique agreed between the patient and their healthcare team.

One of the recognized benefits of brachytherapy is the fact that patients typically spend very little time in hospital. Compared to other radiotherapy techniques, a course of high dose rate brachytherapy can be completed in less time (typically from 1-5 days) and patients typically have to make fewer visits to the radiotherapy clinic.

Many brachytherapy procedures are performed on an outpatient basis. This is more convenient for patients, particularly for those who work, have families, older patients and those who live some distance from treatment centers. Brachytherapy patients also tend to benefit from quicker recovery times (typically 2 to 5 days).

Q. What are the side effects of brachytherapy?
A. As for all cancer treatments, patients may experience side effects after their treatment with brachytherapy. As brachytherapy works by precisely targeting the cancerous tumor from inside the body, studies show that patients in general suffer fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to other treatments.

Different patients respond in different ways to their treatment. The type and degree of side effects experienced vary due to a number of factors, such as the type of cancer being treated, the stage of the cancer and any other ongoing health problems. When discussing your treatment options, it is always important to ask your doctor about what side effects may occur with the different available treatments.

In general, side effects that occur just after your treatment are referred to as acute side effects. These generally disappear in a matter of weeks and are often related to the procedure itself or to the working of the radiotherapy.

Long-term side effects usually occur in a small number of patients and are generally an effect of the radiation on adjacent tissues or organs.

Studies have shown that patients in general suffer fewer side effects after brachytherapy in comparison to any other treatment. For more information, please refer to the specific cancer sections.

Q. Will my radiotherapy affect other people?
A. If temporary brachytherapy is used, no radioactive sources remain in the body after treatment. Therefore, there is no radiation risk to friends or family.

During permanent brachytherapy treatment (also known as ‘seed therapy’), a common concern is that the patient will give off a degree of radiation.  This is because low dose radioactive sources (seeds) are left in the body after treatment. However, the radiation levels are very low and decrease over time. Once the seeds are implanted the patient does not become radioactive – only the seeds are radioactive. The patient is not a hazard to other people. Although, it is sometimes recommended as a precaution that they avoid holding young children or being close to pregnant women during the first two months after the implant procedure.

Q. If I have brachytherapy will I have to have any other procedures as well?
A. This will depend on the extent of the cancer. Sometimes, brachytherapy is carried out with other treatments too. Your doctor will be able to advise you on what will be the best approach.

What does treatment involve?

Understanding the brachytherapy procedure
The exact procedure used to deliver brachytherapy depends on the type of cancer being treated.
The broad process of a brachytherapy procedure is outlined in further detail below.

Initial Planning 

  • A clinical examination is performed to understand the characteristics of the cancer.
  • This will include investigating the size and position of the tumor and its relation to surrounding tissues and organs.
  • A range of imaging equipment, such as x-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used, which allow the healthcare team to get a precise picture of the tumor.
  • The clinical examination and images of the tumor help the healthcare team to plan how best to deliver the radiation.
  • The planning will include consideration of:
    – how to most effectively deliver the radiation to the tumor
    – what dose of radiation is needed
    – exactly where the radiation sources should be placed in or next to the tumor

Inserting the applicator

After the initial planning, the images from the scans are used to insert and correctly position the hollow applicators that will be used to deliver the radiotherapy.
Once the applicators are in place, they are held in position using adhesive tape or stitches to prevent them from moving.

Refining the treatment plan

Computer software is used to create a 3D ‘virtual’ patient.

The healthcare team uses this to determine if the applicators are in the correct place to deliver the best possible dose of radiation.

The virtual patient shows a graphical representation of the distribution of the radiation and serves as a guide for the healthcare team to refine the position of the applicators and the treatment plan before actual treatment begins.

Treatment delivery

  • Once the treatment plan has been finalized, the radiation is delivered to the tumor by a technique known as ‘afterloading’.
  • Following correct placement of the applicators, they are connected to an ‘afterloader’ machine. This machine contains the radioactive sources.
  • The treatment plan is sent to the afterloader, which then controls the delivery of radiation sources.
  • The radiation sources are delivered to the tumor via the applicators.
  • This system limits the risk of radiation exposure to the patient and healthcare team as the treatment team can monitor the treatment from a separate room.
  • The radiation sources remain in place for a specified amount of time.
  • For most types of brachytherapy treatment, the radiation sources are returned to the afterloader via the applicators (temporary brachytherapy).
  • Patients typically recover very quickly from the procedure.
  • Brachytherapy is often performed on an outpatient basis, meaning an overnight stay in hospital is usually not needed.