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What Are the Most Common Brachytherapy Side Effects?

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  • Written By: Melanie Smeltzer
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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Brachytherapy, sometimes referred to as internal radiation, is a procedure used to help treat cancer. This form of cancer therapy is done by placing a small, seed-like radiation implant into the body and adjacent to the cancerous mass. Many feel that this type of therapy is less detrimental to the body than traditional beam radiation. Although this may be true in many cases, some people may still experience undesirable side effects. Many of the most common brachytherapy side effects appear directly after treatment and are usually related to the procedure, such as bruising and swelling at the treatment site, while long-term or delayed side effects are not as common and are often caused by the radiation itself.

Widely thought to be less invasive and less harmful, brachytherapy generally focuses on a small part of the body, which many feel helps to reduce potential side effects. Despite this, the procedure may still be mildly traumatic to the patient's system. Severity of the brachytherapy side effects will often vary, depending upon the type and stage of cancer being treated, the amount of radiation used, and the patient's medical history.

The majority of brachytherapy side effects occur shortly after the procedure is complete. Many people experience soreness at the site of the injection or treatment area. Soreness may also be accompanied by swelling or bruising. This discomfort is often mild and short lived, but a doctor may prescribe medication for extreme or prolonged pain.

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Brachytherapy is most frequently performed on cancers of the pelvic region, such as prostate or cervical cancers. Male patients may notice mildly bloody semen or a burning sensation in the scrotum, while women may develop excess vaginal discharge or an early onset of menopause symptoms. Both sexes may find it difficult to urinate or may find traces of blood in their urine. In addition to these side effects, some patients may also develop diarrhea and excessive fatigue.

Though less common, some may experience long-term brachytherapy side effects. In rare cases, the bladder or bowel may be permanently damaged by this therapy, which may result in a frequent need to urinate or regular bouts of diarrhea. Additionally, the blood vessels of these structures may become weak, sometimes causing an increase of blood in the urine and stool. Although it is thought to be uncommon, some male patients may develop erectile dysfunction or become infertile after treatment.

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