Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. In general, radiation therapy is not used as much as it was in the past for treating ovarian cancer. However, it may be used after surgery to try to make sure all cancer cells are destroyed. This is because small amounts of ovarian cancer cells that have spread to lymph nodes or nearby structures may remain undetected with normal testing. Radiation therapy may also be used to ease pain or other symptoms caused by tumors in other areas of the body.
External Beam Radiation Therapy
In external beam radiation therapy, radiation is produced by a machine positioned outside the body. Short bursts of x-rays are directed at the cancer to affect as much cancer as possible. The radiation oncologist will determine how many treatments you will receive. Generally, external beam radiation only takes a few minutes. For ovarian cancer, external beam radiation therapy is given 5 days a week for 3-5 weeks.
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A newer type of 3-dimensional (3-D) technology may include intensity modulated treatment (IMRT) radiation therapy. The beams surround all sides of the tumor. This allows for more intense radiation to be delivered to the tumor. It also decreases the amount of damage to surrounding healthy tissue and related side effects. IMRT is still being studied and may not be available in all areas.
Intraperitoneal Radiation Therapy
Intraperiotoneal radiation therapy uses a catheter to deliver radioactive material directly into the abdominal cavity. The liquid coats the cancer cells that are in the abdominal cavity and kills them. It may be an option for women with advanced or recurrent ovarian cancer that is not responsive to chemotherapy.
Whole Brain Radiation Therapy
Craniospinal radiation is a special type of radiation that treats the whole brain and spinal cord. This is done when ovarian cancer has spread to the meninges (layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord) or cerebrospinal fluid.
Side Effects and Management
Complications of radiation therapy may include:
- Vaginal irritation, which may cause discharge.
- Vaginal dryness, causing discomfort during intercourse.
- Infertility—If you plan on having children, talk to your doctor. There may be options to preserve fertility before starting treatment.
- Bladder irritation, which may cause blood in the urine, or pain and burning during urination.
- Bowel obstruction (intraperitoneal radiation therapy).
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.
Chundury A, Apicelli A, DeWees T, et al. Intensity modulated radiation therapy for recurrent ovarian cancer refractory to chemotherapy. Gynecol Oncol. 2016;141(1):134-139.
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Ovarian cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gynecology-and-obstetrics/gynecologic-tumors/ovarian-cancer. Updated March 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.
Radiation therapy for ovarian cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/treating/radiation-therapy.html. Updated February 4, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018.
Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/ovarian/patient/ovarian-epithelial-treatment-pdq#section/_156. Updated October 13, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP Last Updated: 11/17/2016