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Radiation Therapy for Cervical Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. A radiation oncologist will customize the treatment dose for individual needs. The goal is to try and kill as much cancer while minimizing harm to healthy tissue. Radiation therapy is generally most effective when used in combination with other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

Radiation of a Tumor

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There are different types of radiation therapy. External beam and brachytherapy are most common approaches for cervical cancer.

External Beam Radiation

Radiation is produced by a machine positioned outside the body. Short bursts of x-rays are directed at the cancer. The radiation oncologist will direct the radiation beam to affect as much cancer as possible. Generally, radiation therapy is given 5 days per week for 5-6 weeks. At the end of the treatment, the tumor site often gets an extra dose of radiation.


Brachytherapy delivers high-dose radiation directly to the area affected by the cancer. A capsule containing radioactive materials is placed directly into the cervix. Another one may be placed in the vagina against the outside of the cervix.

This capsule is usually left in place for 1-3 days, and the treatment may be repeated several days over the course of 1-2 weeks. Hospitalization may be needed while the implants are in place. Another option may be taking radiation delivery in minutes instead of days. This eliminates the need for hospitalization.

Side Effects and Management

Complications of radiation therapy to the pelvic area may include:

  • Bladder irritation, which may cause increased frequency of urination, urgent need to urinate, or pain during urination
  • Bowel irritation, which may cause diarrhea, blood in the stool, and pain in the anal area
  • Vaginal itching, burning, and dryness
  • Menstrual changes
  • Premature menopause, which can be temporary or permanent
  • Infertility—talk to your doctor about options to preserve fertility before starting treatment

A variety of treatments are available to help manage side effects of radiation therapy, such as dry, irritated skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue due to anemia. Sometimes adjustments to treatment doses may also be possible. The earlier side effects are addressed, the more likely they will be controlled with a minimum of discomfort.


Radiation therapy for cervical cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/treating/radiation.html. Updated December 5, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Cervical cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gynecology-and-obstetrics/gynecologic-tumors/cervical-cancer. Updated March 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Chemotherapy for cervical cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/treating/chemotherapy.html. Updated January 29, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-treatment-pdq#section/_180. Updated October 13, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 11/17/2015