Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. The doctor will make a treatment plan for the patient. The goal is to try to destroy as much cancer as possible. It is also to reduce harm to healthy tissue. Radiation therapy may be used with other treatments.
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There are different types of radiation therapy. External beam and brachytherapy are the most common ones for cervical cancer.
External Beam Radiation
Radiation is produced by a machine outside the body. Short bursts of x-rays are aimed at the cancer. In general, radiation therapy is given 5 days per week for 5 to 6 weeks.
Brachytherapy delivers high-dose radiation right to the cancer site. A capsule with radioactive materials is placed in the cervix. Another one may be placed in the vagina.
This capsule is usually left in place for 1 to 3 days. This treatment may be given for a few days over 1 to 2 weeks. The patient may need to be in the hospital while the implants are in place. Another option may be taking high-dose radiation implants. This happens for a few minutes instead of days. A hospital stay may not be needed.
Side Effects and Management
Radiation therapy to the pelvic area may cause:
- Bladder irritation, which may cause frequent, urgent, or painful urination
- Bowel irritation, which may cause diarrhea, blood in the stool, and pain in the anal area
- Vaginal itching, burning, and dryness
- Menstrual changes
- Early menopause, which can be short term or lasting
- Problems getting pregnant
A variety of treatments can help manage side effects of radiation therapy. Sometimes treatment doses may be changed. It is best to address side effects early.
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Chemotherapy for cervical cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/treating/chemotherapy.html. Accessed April 20, 2021.
Hu Z, Ma D. The precision prevention and therapy of HPV-related cervical cancer: new concepts and clinical implications. Cancer Med. 2018 Oct;7(10):5217-5236.
Radiation therapy for cervical cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/treating/radiation.html. Accessed April 20, 2021.
Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-treatment-pdq#section/_180. Accessed April 20, 2021.
Last reviewed March 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP Last Updated: 10/8/2021