What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is the oldest form of radiotherapy, but also one of the least known.

Dating back to very soon after the discovery of radioactivity in 1896, brachytherapy in its most simple form is bringing a radioactive source close to a tumour so the radiation can damage and kill the tumour cells.

In Greek, brachy (or brachios) means close, so brachytherapy is literally close therapy. Radiation from metals such as radium was used for many years to treat cancers in all areas of the body. At this time there were no means to artificially create X-rays so all radiation treatments required radioactive metals.

Fast forward over 100 years and modern brachytherapy as practiced at The Christie is a much more high tech treatment, but still holds true to the original practice of holding a small piece of radioactive material close to (or inside) a tumour. Special machines called afterloaders hold the tiny radioactive source (smaller than a grain of rice) in a safe place, until it is needed for treatment. Specialist radiographers and physicists use complex computers to precisely plan the treatment to sub-millimetre precision which can manipulate the radiation to precisely match the area which the doctor specifies needs to be treated.

As the radioactive source is so close to even inside the tumour, it means we can deliver a high radiation dose to damage and kill the tumour cells while limiting the dose to other healthy areas of the body, effectively treating the tumour while minimising side effects. With over 100 years of experience in treating brachytherapy patients, The Christie is proud of its part as a pioneer of brachytherapy treatments and its modern role as a world class centre offering state-of-the-art brachytherapy facilities for the 21st century.

Last updated: March 2023