Depending on the type of cancer and your radiation oncologist’s recommendation, the radioactive sources may be placed in your body for a limited time or permanently.
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In temporary brachytherapy, the radioactive sources are removed at the end of each treatment session. The sources are often inserted using applicators such as thin plastic tubes (catheters) or cylinders. These applicators may be removed at the end of each session, or left in place until after the final session.
Temporary brachytherapy is mostly used for prostate cancers and gynaecological cancers (such as cervical and vaginal cancers).
Safety precautions – While the radioactive sources are in place, some radiation may pass outside your body. For this reason, hospitals take certain safety precautions to avoid exposing staff and your visitors to radiation. Staff will explain any restrictions before you start brachytherapy treatment.
In some cases, the treatment will be high-dose-rate brachytherapy and it will be given for a few minutes at a time during multiple sessions. The radiation therapists will leave the room briefly during the treatment, but will be able to see and talk to you from another room. You may be able to have this treatment as an outpatient.
In other cases, the sources will deliver low-dose-rate or pulseddose- rate brachytherapy over 1–6 days. During this time, you will be an inpatient and will stay alone in a dedicated treatment room within or close to the main hospital ward.
For low-dose-rate or pulsed-dose-rate brachytherapy, hospital staff will only come into the room for short periods of time, and visitors may be restricted – children under 18 and pregnant women are usually not allowed to enter the room. You can use an intercom to talk with staff and visitors outside the room.
Once the sources are removed, you are not radioactive and there is no risk to other people.
In permanent brachytherapy, radioactive seeds about the size of an uncooked grain of rice are put inside special needles and implanted into the body. The needles are removed, and the seeds are left in place to gradually decay. As the seeds decay, they release small amounts of radiation over weeks or months. They will eventually stop releasing radiation, but they will not be removed. This is a low-dose-rate technique and it is often used to treat small prostate cancers.
Safety precautions – If you have permanent brachytherapy, you will be radioactive for a short time after the seeds are inserted. The radiation is usually not harmful to people around you, so it is generally safe to go home. However, you may need to avoid close contact with young children and pregnant women for a short time – your treatment team will advise you of any precautions to take. You will usually be able to return to your usual activities a day or two after the seeds are inserted.