Intro to Balloon Catheter Radiation Therapy

How This Procedure Treats Breast Cancer From Within

The former standard of care, external beam radiation therapy for breast cancer, usually takes 5 to 7 weeks. Instead, balloon catheter radiation takes only 5 to 7 days, with great effectiveness and fewer side effects. Read about balloon catheter radiation and how it may benefit you.

Breast Radiation After a Lumpectomy

A woman undergoes breast cancer radiation therapy.
A woman undergoes breast cancer radiation therapy.. Mark Kostich/Getty Images

Radiation is often used to treat breast cancer after your tumor has been removed. If you've had breast-conserving surgery like a lumpectomy, radiation may be recommended to ensure that cancer cells that may remain in the tumor area are destroyed. Since healthy cells as well as cancer cells in the radiation area will be affected, radiation oncologists have come up with some precise ways to zap your tissues and do the least harm.

The Difference Between External and Internal Radiation

You may be treated with external or internal radiation, depending on which method will be most effective for your specific situation. External radiation is also called whole-breast radiation and is usually given daily for 5 to 7 weeks in a clinic that specializes in radiology for cancer.

Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, is also referred to as partial-breast radiation. It involves placing small radioactive seeds into catheters inside your breast where the tumor used to be. The radioactive seeds emit the proper treatment dose of energy to the tumor cavity as well as the surrounding tissue.

A New Kind of Internal Radiation: Balloon Catheter Radiation

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new technology for brachytherapy called balloon catheter radiation in 2002. For breast radiation, some methods use a balloon and others use a device that expands like a balloon once it is placed inside your breast. These methods of partial-breast radiation are gaining acceptance among oncologists and may be an option for you.

Treatment is given for 5 to 7 days, after which the catheter is removed. Because this method of radiation takes less time than external beam radiation, it is also called accelerated partial breast irradiation.

Balloon Radiation Treatment Goals

The goal of treatment with a balloon catheter device such as MammoSite or ClearPath is to radiate breast tissue in and around the tumor cavity in order to destroy any remaining cancer cells, while limiting irradiation to healthy tissues in your lungs, heart, skin, and fat.

Balloon catheters are available in two models:

  • Single-source, where one catheter containing the radiation dose
  • Multiple-source, where several catheters containing the radiation doses. 

Balloon Catheter Implantation and Treatment Cycle

A balloon catheter can be implanted at two different times: at the end of a lumpectomy procedure, or with ultrasound guidance to the tumor cavity after surgery has healed. A balloon catheter device can be inserted with local anesthesia.

Preparation, placement, and cleanup takes about 25 minutes. The balloon area will not be expanded until it is inside your breast. When your treatments are finished, the catheter can easily be collapsed, removed, and the incision closed with a couple of stitches and a dressing.

Brachytherapy treatments given through a balloon catheter are scheduled twice a day for one week (5 to 7 days). Side effects from this method of radiation are quite mild when compared to external beam radiation.

Balloon Catheter Compares Well With Traditional Radiation

There is very limited data on the new radiation techniques, but studies show that the preliminary and early results look very good. Research reports that with balloon catheter partial breast radiation, little is lost in terms of efficacy, but much gained in terms of convenience. Patients report fewer side effects from radiation, and recovery time may be shorter than external beam or implanted seed radiation.


Radiological Society of North America. Ultrasound-guided Percutaneous Placement of Balloon Catheters for Partial Breast Irradiation (PBI) after Lumpectomy for Breast Cancer. Lora D. Barke, D.O., et al. November 29 2006.

American Society for Therapeutic Radiation and Oncology (ASTRO) Meeting November 2007. A Dosimetric Comparison of MammoSiteTM and ClearPathTM HDR Breast Brachytherapy Devices. Adam Dickler, M.D., et. Al.

American Journal of Surgery. Descriptions and outcomes of insertion techniques of a breast brachytherapy balloon catheter in 1403 patients enrolled in the American Society of Breast Surgeons MammoSite breast brachytherapy registry trial. Zannis V, et al. 2005 Oct;190(4):530-8.

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