Brachytherapy for cervical or womb cancer is given through specially designed hollow tubes called applicators, which are inserted into the womb or vagina. During treatment, a machine is used to place the radioactive material inside the applicators. After the treatment, the radioactive material is withdrawn back into the machine and the applicators are removed.
The brachytherapy may be given as either high-dose or low-dose rate treatment. With both treatments, the same dose of radiotherapy is given but over different times. High-dose rate treatment is given over a short period of time (for example, 10–20 minutes), either as one short burst or several short bursts over a few days. Low-dose rate treatment is given over a longer period of time, usually over 12–24 hours.
You’ll be cared for in a single room while you’re having brachytherapy. Special precautions will need to be taken to prevent other people being exposed to radioactivity while the machine is giving you your treatment. Your hospital team will give you more detailed information about these precautions.
Women who have high-dose rate treatment for cervical cancer may have image guided brachytherapy (IGBT). IGBT makes the radiotherapy treatment very accurate. It uses CT or MRI imaging to pinpoint exactly where the cancer is before each treatment. This makes it possible to shape the radiation dose to match the shape of the tumour and to avoid organs such as the bowel and bladder. Sometimes additional applicators may be used to boost the dose of radiotherapy to a particular area.
IGBT that uses MRI images is particularly accurate but it isn’t widely available in the UK. The Royal College of Radiologists and the Department of Health recommend that women with cancer of the cervix should be offered MRI-based IGBT from 2015.
Your oncologist can tell you whether IGBT is a suitable treatment for you. They can arrange for you to have IGBT at another treatment centre if it’s not possible for you to have it at your local one.