Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer and other diseases. It uses high-energy particles to damage the DNA in the cancer cells. This makes the cells unable to grow or divide.
There are 2 main types of radiation therapy:
In certain cases, your doctor may recommend a combination of these. Radiation is often used with other types of treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy, which stimulates the immune system to fight infection.
This fact sheet will focus on internal radiation therapy.
This procedure is done to:
Internal radiation can cause side effects. The radiation damages your own healthy cells as well as the cancer cells. The side effects will vary depending on the type and location of treatment. Common side effects of radiation include, but are not limited, to:
Discuss the specific side effects that you may have with your doctor.
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
A woman who is pregnant or could be pregnant should avoid exposure to radiation. It could harm a developing fetus.
You may need local anesthesia, which will numb a small area, or general anesthesia, which keeps you asleep during the procedure.
The radiation source will be placed inside your body on or near the affected area. This provides higher doses of radiation in a shorter time. The radioactive sources are in the form of wires, seeds, or rods. This treatment is mostly used for cancers of the head and neck, breast, uterus, thyroid, cervix, and prostate. The 2 main types of internal radiation are:
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How long it will take depends on the type of cancer treated and the method of internal radiation
Anesthesia prevents pain during the procedure. You may be sore when recovering from the procedure depending on where the radioactive material was placed.
You will stay in the hospital until the implant is removed, or in the case of a permanent implant, when the radioactivity has decreased. High-dosage implants are usually removed within a matter of minutes. Low-dosage implants may stay in for a few days. Permanent implants lose their radioactivity within a few days.
You will return to a hospital room while the implant is in place. While the radiation is implanted, you will follow these precautions to prevent transmitting radiation to others:
During treatment, your doctor will want to see you at least once a week. You may have routine blood tests to check for the effects of radiation on your blood cells.
After treatment is completed, you will have regular visits to monitor healing and to make sure the treatment affected the disease as planned. Follow-up care will vary for each person. Care may include further testing, medication, or rehabilitative treatment.
After arriving home, contact your doctor if any of the following occur:
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer Care Ontario
Radiation. Oncolink, University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center website. Available at: http://www.oncolink.org/treatment/treatment.cfm?c=5. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Radiation therapy for cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy/radiation-fact-sheet. Accessed February 24, 2015.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Mohei Abouzied, MD Last Updated: 3/18/2013