Brachytherapy (radiation implants)

The Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine operates one of the largest and most comprehensive brachytherapy programs in the United States and serves as a national training site for brachytherapy procedures.

Brachytherapy typically uses radioactive “seeds” that are smaller than a grain of rice. These seeds are inserted directly into a tumor and are left in the body for a few hours or days. In some cases, the seeds are left in the body permanently and the radioactivity will diminish over time.

Radiation oncologists at Siteman pioneered the use of high dose brachytherapy in the region for the treatment of early stage prostate, breast and some gynecological cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vagina and uterus. Through advanced procedures that use not seeds, but ingested or injected radioisotopes, brachytherapy is used to treat ocular melanoma, lymphomas, advanced liver cancer and many thyroid cancers.

The benefit of brachytherapy is that radiation oncologists can deliver extremely high radiation doses with pinpoint accuracy without treating adjacent organs or sensitive tissues. By also combining this procedure with image-guided technologies, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans, doctors here have found that can more precisely control where brachytherapy is implanted. They also can lower the radiation dose as they see the tumor shrink or can modify the treatment plan at any point.

Temporary Brachytherapy — Radioactive material is inserted into the tumor area through hollow needles, tubes or fluid filled balloons. The material stays in place for a few minutes or several days, depending upon your treatment plan. The material is then removed from your body.

Permanent Brachytherapy — Small seeds of radioactive material are placed directly into a tumor or tumors. The seeds are left in place, with the radioactivity dropping over time, usually over several weeks or months.