Brachytherapy or internal radiation therapy is commonly used by an Oncologist to treat cancers like those of the prostate, eye, head, neck, breast and gynecological tumors. This form of therapy is used to deliver higher doses of radiation deeper into the body, compared to external beam therapy that is conventionally used. Read on to know more about brachytherapy and its side effects:
What is brachytherapy?
Brachytherapy makes use of radioactive material packed inside a seed, capsule or pellet and then this is implanted inside the body through a catheter or a needle. This form of radiation therapy delivers high-energy waves to the tumors and kills the cancerous cells.
In comparison to conventional forms of treatment, brachytherapy is minimally invasive, and has a more localized effect—though use of radioactive seeds as big as rice grains. The out-patient procedure of brachytherapy takes around an hour to complete and the patients can return to normal life within no time. The implants stay in the body until the treatment is finished. If the implant is to be put inside the body multiple times, the healthcare provider may choose to leave the catheter inside the body for the duration of treatment.
Brachytherapy is often combined with chemotherapy to ensure complete remission of tumor. Depending on the type and size of tumor, the healthcare provider chooses a temporary or permanent brachytherapy delivery device.
Brachytherapy is used to treat many types of cancers, including those of:
- Bile duct
- Head and neck
- Soft tissue
What are the benefits of brachytherapy?
In comparison to external beam radiation therapy, brachytherapy allows delivery of radiation to a smaller area thereby causing minimal damage to the nearby normal cells. This ensures that there are fewer side effects while delivering radiation. Brachytherapy is also more effective at dealing with deeper and smaller tumors.
Brachytherapy implants are monitored by radiation oncologists through CT scans and ultrasounds to ensure the delivery of encapsulated material to the right location.
Depending on the type of cancer, your healthcare provider will choose whether to go for low-dose or high-dose brachytherapy. For low dose rate (LDR) the hospital stay is minimal, while for high-dose rate (HDR) your healthcare provider may recommend hospitalization.
What are the side effects of brachytherapy?
Some short-term side effects of brachytherapy include:
- Soreness at the treatment site: the skin is often sore at the treatment site. During the period of brachytherapy, it is recommended to not irritate the skin further by shaving, waxing or using hair removal products. For the first year after brachytherapy, one must be careful to protect the skin at the treatment site. This includes use of broad-spectrum sunblock and avoiding the use of tanning beds.
- Bowel and bladder changes: for brachytherapy close to the bowel and bladder, there is often localized swelling and bruising leading to cramping of the intestines, changes in bowel habits, blood or clots in the urine, fever and urgency while urinating.
- Fatigue: like conventional radiation therapy, brachytherapy also causes fatigue. This fatigue is the body’s way of repairing damage to the healthy cells during the course of treatment. This fatigue can last for a few weeks to months after treatment. The healthcare team recommends dealing with this fatigue with the help of gentle exercises, and getting fresh air.
- Pain: is the side effect of the localized changes to the body. For instance, brachytherapy for the prostatic tumor can lead to pelvic and lower back pain due to the bone damage.
Long-term side effects of brachytherapy may include:
- Bone problems
- Nerve damage
- Early menopause
- Vaginal changes and mild fibrosis of the upper vagina
- Chronic ulcers
- Long term bowel and bladder damage
All the side effects must be reported to the healthcare team and the expert Oncologist in Islamabad so they can be dealt with urgently.