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What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is a radiation technique that places radioactive material inside the body, very close to the tumor. This implant—placed inside a seed, pellet, wire or capsule—gives off radiation that damages the DNA of nearby cancer cells and allows for a higher dose of radiation to destroy cancer cells than might be possible with external radiation treatments. Benefits include fewer side effects and shorter treatment time compared with traditional radiation techniques.

Why it's done

Brachytherapy is commonly used to treat many types of cancer, including:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Gynecologic cancers, including cervical and uterine
  • Breast cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Eye cancer
  • Skin cancer

Our approach

At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, brachytherapy is one of many advanced radiation therapies used to destroy cancer cells and slow tumor growth without harming nearby healthy tissue. Our department is internationally recognized for its expertise in brachytherapy; our faculty members hold leadership positions in national societies, have published numerous academic articles, and are invited national and international speakers. We were selected as just one of four national training sites for the American Brachytherapy Society’s prestigious LDR prostate fellowship program, and regional training programs send their trainees to Northwell for brachytherapy training.

The Department of Radiation Medicine was the first on Long Island to utilize the CONTURA® balloon for HDR brachytherapy for breast cancer treatment. CONTURA is a catheter used to deliver HDR brachytherapy to the breast after surgery to remove the primary tumor. It places radiation inside the lumpectomy cavity so that it’s targeted to the area where cancer is most likely to occur, and the amount of radiation to healthy surrounding tissue is limited. We are also one of the few departments on Long Island using HDR brachytherapy to treat skin cancer.

All radiation therapies are administered using evidence-based medicine. A multidisciplinary team of doctors, including radiologists, surgeons, pathologists, medical oncologists and radiology oncologists, collaborates on treatment plans to ensure that every aspect of treatment is precisely coordinated for the best possible outcome. This includes ongoing peer review and chart rounds.

Because convenience is a priority, we offer multiple locations for radiation therapy to enable you to obtain treatment near where you live or work. 

Research at Northwell

Advances in radiation oncology are continuously happening at Northwell Cancer Institute. With innovations in radiation therapy technology and techniques, we continue to improve outcomes. Through our alliance with leading research organization Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, we participate in investigator-initiated trials to offer the most leading-edge therapies to patients. 

Northwell Health Cancer Institute is recognized worldwide for its commitment to providing pioneering treatment for cancer patients. The ongoing focus on improving cancer treatments has contributed to significant advancements that are improving the quality of lives and increasing the number of cancer survivors.

Learn more about clinical trials and research happening at Northwell Health Cancer Institute.

Types of

LDR brachytherapy
LDR brachytherapy is a type of radiation therapy that destroys cancer cells and shrinks tumors. During LDR brachytherapy, implants are placed into the patient’s body and are often left in for one to seven days before being removed. Some LDR implants, like prostate seed implants, are left in permanently but are no longer radioactive after a period of time. The implants can be radioactive seeds, hollow needles, catheters or balloons filled with fluid that are inserted into or near the cancer. General anesthesia may be used during the insertion of implants, depending on the size and number of implants, as well as the location of the insertion site.

Patients who have prostate seed implants are safe to be in public immediately after the procedure. Other patients may need to stay in a special room in the hospital during treatment and may need to limit time with visitors in the hospital when the implants are in place. Once implants are removed or finish giving off radiation, the patient is no longer radioactive and can be around people.

HDR brachytherapy
High-dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy is one form of brachytherapy treatment that involves implanting radioactive pellets or seeds in the impacted area of the body which slowly release a high dose of radiation directly into the body with minimal damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. The implants can be hollow needles, catheters, custom molds shaped to an area of the body, or balloons filled with fluid that are inserted into or near the cancer. General anesthesia may be used during the insertion of implants, depending on the size and number of implants, as well as the location of the insertion site. A special radiation machine is then attached to the implants to precisely deliver radiation to the area of interest.

Those undergoing HDR brachytherapy will likely make daily trips for treatment, or may stay in the hospital depending on the type of cancer they have. It's safe to be around others when the implants are in place, as they are not radioactive.  The only time the patient is radioactive is during a short period of time when the treatment is being delivered with the special radiation machine. Once the treatment is over, there is no lingering radioactivity.

Coronary brachytherapy
Coronary brachytherapy is a treatment that is used to combat restenosis (the repeat narrowing of a coronary artery) in patients undergoing treatment of coronary artery disease with angioplasty or stents. Restenosis often occurs as a result of recurrent coronary artery disease, either through blood clotting (thrombosis) or tissue regrowth.

While anti-clotting drugs can treat restenosis caused by thrombosis, radiation is used to treat restenosis that occurs from tissue growth by preventing the cells from abnormally growing and blocking the coronary artery. For restenosis, angioplasty is performed, and then the radiation is delivered by inserting a catheter with the radioisotope inside of it to the localized area of concern in the artery.

Possible side effects

Side effects of brachytherapy include:

  • Swelling, bruising or pain at the location of where the radiation was placed
  • Urinary symptoms, including incontinence or painful urination
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Erectile dysfunction (prostate brachytherapy)

Most side effects usually go away after treatment ends. However, you may feel very tired for six to four weeks after your last treatment. Talk to your doctor about ways to treat potential side effects.

Support groups

Cancer is challenging, but you don’t have to go it alone. At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, a wide range of support groups are available to help you cope with diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment issues.

Learn more about support groups.

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