Internal Radiation Treatment and Brachytherapy

In some cases, breast cancer can be treated most effectively using internal radiation. In this therapy, radioactive material is placed in or near the tumor. The most common form of internal radiation therapy for breast cancer is brachytherapy. In this procedure, catheters are used to deliver radioactive pellets to the tumor area, where they give off radiation for several days or weeks. One of the benefits of brachytherapy is that it has fewer side effects than external radiation.

Words to Know

A catheter is a long, flexible tube that is inserted into the body to deliver fluids or medication.

Two innovative types of brachytherapy used in breast cancer treatment include:

High-dose rate brachytherapy

If you have a fairly localized cancer that hasn’t yet spread extensively to surrounding tissue, you may be a candidate to receive high-dose rate, or HDR, brachytherapy after a lumpectomy.

3-D Animation

See a medical animation of how high-dose rate brachytherapy works.

In HDR brachytherapy, an oncologist uses high-technology imaging tools to look inside your body and implant a catheter in the tumor cavity, or the site of the lumpectomy. A sophisticated computer is then used to deliver powerful, radioactive pellets, or seeds, to the site through the catheter. At the end of the treatment session, the radioactive pellets are removed from the body through the catheter.

HDR brachytherapy allows oncologists to deliver very high doses of radiation to a localized area with little damage to surrounding healthy breast tissue. It also gives physicians the ability to precisely control the radiation dosage in different areas of the tumor site.

Benefits of HDR Brachytherapy

Unlike external radiation treatments, which typically take five to seven weeks, treatment with HDR brachytherapy takes just a few days. It may also have fewer side effects than traditional external radiation, such as burning or irritation to the skin.

A lumpectomy combined with HDR brachytherapy may be used in place of a mastectomy in some cases, allowing people with localized cancer to preserve more of their natural breast tissue. However, because it’s not an appropriate treatment for all people with breast cancer, you’ll need to discuss whether it’s an option for you with your oncologist.

MammoSite® radiation therapy

MammoSite® radiation therapy, or MRT, is a less invasive form of brachytherapy. A balloon catheter is inserted in the area of the breast where the tumor was removed. Once inserted, the balloon is expanded and radiation is delivered with a tiny bead attached to a wire, irradiating the area surrounding the cavity where the tumor was taken out. This is in contrast to traditional brachytherapy for breast cancer, which can involve the surgical implantation of up to 24 catheters.

Hear Dr. Bernard Eden of Cancer Treatment Centers of America explain how MRT works.

MRT is most often used after a lumpectomy to prevent a cancer recurrence. Because a lumpectomy may leave behind a few undetectable cancer cells, MRT may be used to try to destroy any cancer cells that remain after surgery, while minimizing radiation exposure to healthy breast tissue.

You can typically receive MRT as an outpatient. Most people have two treatments a day for five days. That’s significantly less than the five to seven weeks required to receive external radiation therapy for breast cancer.

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