Internal radiation therapy

inside_out[1]Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) is radiation delivered from radiation sources (radioactive materials) placed inside or on the body. Several brachytherapy techniques are used in cancer treatment. Interstitial brachytherapy uses a radiation source placed within tumor tissue, such as within a prostate tumor. Intracavitary brachytherapy uses a source placed within a surgical cavity or a body cavity, such as the chest cavity, near a tumor. Episcleral brachytherapy, which is used to treat melanoma inside the eye, uses a source that is attached to the eye.

In brachytherapy, radioactive isotopes are sealed in tiny pellets or “seeds.” These seeds are placed in patients using delivery devices, such as needles, catheters, or some other type of carrier. As the isotopes decay naturally, they give off radiation that damages nearby cancer cells.

If left in place, after a few weeks or months, the isotopes decay completely and no longer give off radiation. The seeds will not cause harm if they are left in the body.

Brachytherapy may be able to deliver higher doses of radiation to some cancers than external-beam radiation therapy while causing less damage to normal tissue.

Brachytherapy can be given as a low-dose-rate or a high-dose-rate treatment:

  • In low-dose-rate treatment, cancer cells receive continuous low-dose radiation from the source over a period of several days.
  • In high-dose-rate treatment, a robotic machine attached to delivery tubes placed inside the body guides one or more radioactive sources into or near a tumor, and then removes the sources at the end of each treatment session. High-dose-rate treatment can be given in one or more treatment sessions.An example of a high-dose-rate treatment is the MammoSite® system, which is being studied to treat patients with breast cancer who have undergone breast-conserving surgery.


The placement of brachytherapy sources can be temporary or permanent:

  • For permament brachytherapy, the sources are surgically sealed within the body and left there, even after all of the radiation has been given off. The remaining material (in which the radioactive isotopes were sealed) does not cause any discomfort or harm to the patient. Permanent brachytherapy is a type of low-dose-rate brachytherapy.
  • For temporary brachytherapy, tubes (catheters) or other carriers are used to deliver the radiation sources, and both the carriers and the radiation sources are removed after treatment. Temporary brachytherapy can be either low-dose-rate or high-dose-rate treatment.


Doctors can use brachytherapy alone or in addition to external-beam radiation therapy to provide a “boost” of radiation to a tumor while sparing surrounding normal tissue.