Doctors refer to internal radiation therapy as brachytherapy. They administer brachytherapy via an implant in the body, which they often place in the cervix, uterus, or vagina to treat cervical cancer.

It is one of two types of radiation therapy a person can receive to treat cervical cancer. A person typically receives both brachytherapy and external beam radiation therapy.

Cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among females globally. Along with surgery and chemotherapy, brachytherapy, a type of radiation therapy, is a treatment option for cervical cancer.

This article looks at the goal of brachytherapy and what a person can expect before, during, and after treatment. It also looks at side effects and answers some frequently asked questions.

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The goal of brachytherapy is to deliver higher doses of radiation in a smaller area than external beam radiation can. The radiation either destroys cancer cells or stops them from growing.

Brachytherapy involves implanting a radiation source that is sealed inside an implant, which may be a ribbon, seed, pellet, capsule, balloon, or other vessel.

A doctor places the implant inside the body, near to or inside the tumor.

Learn about types of radiation therapy here.

Before a doctor implants the radiation source, a person will meet with a doctor or nurse to plan their treatment and discuss what the therapy involves.

The healthcare professional will perform a physical examination, discuss the patient’s medical history, and may order imaging tests.

A doctor will discuss what type of brachytherapy would be most beneficial for the patient and explain the therapy’s benefits and potential side effects. They will also explain ways people can manage side effects and care for themselves during and after brachytherapy.

A doctor will typically implant the radiation source in a hospital operating room designed to contain radiation. The doctor may administer either general or local anesthetic, then insert one or more implants into the cervix, uterus, or vagina via a catheter or metal tube.

They may use an imaging test such as a CT scan or ultrasound to guide the placement of the devices.

Brachytherapy can be low dose or high dose, as the following sections explain.

Low-dose brachytherapy

The implant will remain in place for one to a few days, giving off low doses of radiation. A person will stay in the hospital during this time, sometimes in a special room to contain the radiation.

If a person receives a smaller implant, it may remain in place permanently and will stop giving off radiation after several weeks. A person may be able to go home on the day of implantation but may have to follow special precautions.

High-dose brachytherapy

The doctor will implant the device, which will give off powerful radiation doses for 10–20 minutes before removal. Doctors may repeat the treatment twice a day for a few days or once per day over a few weeks. A person may have to remain in the hospital for the duration of their treatment.

A person may feel temporarily weak, drowsy, or nauseous during treatment due to the drugs doctors use while they place the implants. The person may also feel some discomfort from the applicator.

Following treatment, a doctor or nurse will remove the applicator and the implant if it is temporary. People typically do not require anesthetic for removal, and the procedure usually takes place in the same hospital room as the brachytherapy. The pelvic area may be tender or painful after treatment.

Permanent implants will remain in the body and stop giving off radiation over time. There is no need to remove the implants once they are inactive.

A person may give off small amounts of radiation after brachytherapy for a short period after treatment. This can mean a person needs to take special precautions after treatment. These may include:

  • remaining in the hospital room for some time
  • limiting visitors during treatment
  • avoiding interaction with pregnant people or children
  • staying a certain distance away from visitors for some time

Brachytherapy affects healthy cells and cancer cells. The damage to healthy cells can cause short- and long-term side effects.

Side effects of radiation commonly include fatigue and changes to the skin, such as dryness, blistering, and peeling.

Radiation therapy in the pelvic area for cervical cancer can cause specific side effects, including:

Long-term side effects may include:

  • vaginal dryness
  • vaginal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the vagina that can cause sex to be painful
  • weakened bones
  • rectal bleeding
  • swollen legs
  • urinary problems

Learn more about radiation side effects here.

Below are answers to some common questions about brachytherapy for cervical cancer.

How many sessions of brachytherapy do you need for cervical cancer?

The number of sessions a person requires depends on their cancer and the type of brachytherapy. They may require two treatments per day for 2–5 days or one treatment per week for 2–5 weeks.

Does brachytherapy cure cervical cancer?

Brachytherapy, in combination with external beam radiation therapy, can improve a person’s outlook for cervical cancer. According to one study, 92.5% of people who received both types of radiation therapy achieved tumor remission, and recurrence rates also improved slightly.

Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiation therapy. As part of a treatment plan for cervical cancer, a doctor will implant a contained source of radiation into the cervix, uterus, or vagina, either temporarily or permanently. Permanent implants stop giving off radiation after several weeks.

The goal of brachytherapy is to deliver higher doses of radiation in a smaller area than external radiation may be capable of. The brachytherapy can be low or high dose.

After treatment, a person can temporarily give off radiation and may have to take special precautions for a while. Brachytherapy for cervical cancer can have side effects, such as hair loss, fatigue, skin changes, diarrhea, and vaginal dryness.