Internal radiotherapy is used mainly to treat cancers in the head and neck area, the cervix, womb, prostate or the skin.
How it is given
Treatment is given in one of two ways:
Brachytherapy - putting solid radioactive material (the source) close to or inside the tumour for a limited period of time.
Radioisotope treatment - by using a radioactive liquid, which is given either as a drink or as an injection into a vein.
Your specialist will discuss your particular treatment with you.
If you have internal radiotherapy, you may have to stay in hospital for a few days and special precautions will be taken while the radioactive material is in place in your body. Once the treatment is over there is no risk of exposing your family or friends to radiation.
Safety measures need be taken to prevent unnecessary radiation exposure to the hospital staff, your relatives and friends. Depending on the type of treatment you’re having, restrictions may be needed for a few days - but sometimes it’s only for a few minutes.
The staff looking after you will explain the restrictions in more detail before you start your treatment. Each hospital has different routines, so it’s worth visiting the treatment area beforehand to discuss with the nursing and medical staff what will happen.
You may be admitted to the ward the day before your treatment so the staff can go over the procedure with you. This is a good time to ask questions, and it may help to make a list beforehand so you don’t forget something important.
The safety measures and visiting restrictions might make you feel isolated, frightened and depressed at a time when you may want people around you. If you have any of these feelings, it’s important to tell the staff looking after you. You may find it helpful to take in plenty of reading material and other items to keep you occupied while you’re in the single room. There will also usually be a television and a radio in the room.
If you’re having brachytherapy, you only need to stay in isolation while the radioactive source is in place. Once it has been removed, the radioactivity disappears and it’s perfectly safe to be with other people.
This doesn’t apply to brachytherapy for prostate cancer, as the radioactive seeds are not removed. With prostate brachytherapy the radiation affects only the area a few millimetres around the seeds, so there’s no danger of it affecting other people.
If you’re having treatment with a radioisotope the radioactivity will disappear gradually, so you will need to stay in isolation until the radiation in your body has dropped to a safe level. Before you leave hospital, the staff will check that most of the radioactivity in your body has gone and that your belongings are free from any signs of radioactivity. After you leave hospital you should be able to carry on with your life normally, but there may be a few restrictions about contact with people - especially children and pregnant women - for a few more days.