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Brachytherapy for Oral Cancer

Brachytherapy is a type of radiation therapy that is sometimes used to treat oral cancer. All types of radiation therapy use high-energy X-rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. Traditionally, the radiation comes from a machine outside the body that focuses a beam of radiation on the cancer cells. But in brachytherapy, it comes from an implant placed inside the body. Another name for brachytherapy is internal radiation.1

How Brachytherapy Works

In brachytherapy, radioactive material is inserted into or near the tumor. The two main approaches used to treat oral cancer are:

  • High-dose-rate implants. In this approach, small tubes are placed into or around the tumor. The tubes themselves are not radioactive. But each day, the tubes are hooked up to a machine that inserts radioactive materials for a short time and then takes the materials back out again. This process is repeated at the hospital for several days. After the last day, the tubes are removed.1,2

  • Low-dose-rate implants. This approach also uses small tubes placed into and around the tumor. Radioactive pellets, called seeds, are put in the tubes. Then the seeds are left in place for a few days while you stay in a special room in the hospital. During this period, other people may need to limit visiting time. The tubes and seeds are removed before you go home.1,2

Once a doctor takes out the tubes and seeds, the body is not radioactive. In the past, radioactive pellets were sometimes left in place permanently. However, this approach is no longer widely used for oral cancer.1

What to Expect

Before the tubes are implanted, you will be given anesthesia. Afterward, you might feel drowsy or have an upset stomach from the anesthetic, but these side effects soon wear off. While the tubes are in place, you might feel some discomfort. If needed, you can take medication to relax or relieve the pain.3

Anesthesia isn’t usually required when the tubes are being removed. Afterward, the area may be sore. But you will probably be able to get back to your usual activities quickly. Just keep in mind that you might need extra rest for a few days while your body recovers from the treatment.3

1 “Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Radiation Therapy.” American Cancer Society, September 24, 2009. Accessed 2010.

2 “What to Know About Brachytherapy (a Type of Internal Radiation Therapy).” National Cancer Institute, April 2007. Accessed 2010.

3 “Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy).” American Cancer Society, May 24, 2010. Accessed 2010.

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