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When is brachytherapy recommended and how does it work?

Dr. Emily Grade  

Dr. Emily Grade is a radiation oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: When is brachytherapy recommended and how does it work?

Answer: Brachytherapy is a form of radiotherapy where a radiation source is placed inside or next to the area that requires treatment. Brachytherapy is most commonly used to treat cervical, prostate, breast and skin cancers. It is occasionally used to treat esophageal, lung cancers and other tumors in many body sites.

Brachytherapy allows for the precise delivery of high-dose radiation to the target tissue while sparing the surrounding normal tissue. This is also why brachytherapy is only useful in certain specific situations. Brachytherapy can often be delivered in a shorter time and a safer manner than the conventional form of radiation therapy, external beam radiotherapy (EBRT).

Brachytherapy has two dose rates – low dose and high dose. With the low dose rate, the doctor puts the radiation source into the cancer and leaves it there for days and then removes it; sometimes, the sources stay permanently. The dose is delivered over a longer time. For high dose radiation, a doctor puts the radiation source into the cancer for a short time (minutes) and removes it from the body. In this instance, the radioactive source delivers a high dose rate per minute.

Many brachytherapy procedures are done on an outpatient basis. It is often associated with a lower risk of serious side effects due to treatment is to a smaller volume of tissue.

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