Radiation Therapy for Cervical, Vulvar, and Vaginal Cancers
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 140 Minnesota women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019. As with any gynecological cancer, cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancers can take a heavy psychological toll as well as physical effects.
At Minneapolis Radiation Oncology, we understand how daunting a cancer diagnosis can be. We’re committed to helping you understand the complexities of the disease and how radiation treatment may help with your cancer, and to choose the best options for the quality of life that you want.
MRO has been awarded full accreditation in excellence of care and safety by the American Society of Radiation Oncology APEx program.
Since 1981, we’ve established a reputation as trusted allies in the fight against cancer. And our radiation oncology specialists have treated over 100,000 patients – more than any other clinic in Minnesota. Our MRO radiation oncologists provide a level of expertise that comes only from working with radiation cancer treatments every day.
Today, Minneapolis Radiation Oncology is the Twin Cities’ leading provider of advanced radiation therapy for cancer. We bring advanced radiation therapy close to home, with 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin. Count on the cancer specialists at MRO to be here for you, with care, precision, and compassion.
“I enjoy the privilege of establishing professional relationships and working directly with so many brave patients while sharing advances in technology and tailoring treatments to maximize effectiveness and minimize side effects.”
Daniel A. Wattson, MD
MRO | Fairview Southdale
What are cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers?
Cervical cancer starts when the cells lining the cervix begin to grow out of control. The two main types are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma, which are distinguished by the appearance of cells under a microscope. Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer.
Vulvar and vaginal cancers are similar to cervical cancers but are more likely to be squamous cell carcinomas.
Metastatic cervical, vulvar, or vaginal cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Why choose radiation therapy for cervical cancer?
Radiation therapy may be used for cervical cancer:
- As a part of the main treatment. For some stages of cervical cancer, the preferred treatment is radiation alone or surgery followed by radiation.
- Along with chemotherapy (called concurrent chemoradiation). The chemo helps the radiation work better.
- To treat cervical cancer that has spread or that has come back after treatment.
Radiation technology is proven effective
At MRO, we use radiation, or radiotherapy, to destroy cancer cells with radiation. Using state-of-the-art imaging technologies such as MRI, CT, and PET, your MRO care team can pinpoint radiation doses down to the millimeter.
With cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancer, there are several different types of treatment techniques that can be used. Each option directs precise doses of radiation at cancer cells, which are more susceptible to radiation than healthy cells. Like an x-ray, radiation therapy is painless. For patients who receive external beam radiation therapy, there’s no fear of becoming radioactive during or after treatment.
Radiation treatment options for gynecological cancers
MRO’s radiation oncologists deliver radiation doses to destroy cancerous cells in the affected area, while sparing healthy tissue. By focusing the radiation directly on the tumor and surrounding tissues, these therapies are designed to reduce the risk of common gastrointestinal and sexual function side effects.
We provide two types of radiation therapy for gynecologic cancers:
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT): External beam radiotherapy is the most common form of radiation treatment and delivers radiation to cancer cells from outside the body, using a variety of machine-based technologies. We use a machine called a linear accelerator to direct high-energy radiation beams to the exact location of the cancer.
High dose rate (HDR) brachytherapy: Brachytherapy delivers high doses of radiation from implants placed close to, or inside, the tumor(s) or tumor bed in the uterus, cervix, and/or vagina. Devices called high-dose rate (HDR) remote after-loading machines allow radiation oncologists to complete the brachytherapy procedure in just minutes. Depending on the area treated, you may receive several HDR treatments over a number of days. Once your treatment is finished, your MRO radiation oncologist will remove the radiation source and the catheter or applicator.
Sometimes both brachytherapy and external beam radiation therapy are used. How much of the pelvis needs to be exposed to radiation therapy and the type(s) of radiation used depend on the extent of the disease.
Your treatment is a team effort
When you talk to your doctor about treatment options, ask if MRO is the right choice for you. If radiation therapy is an option for you, your MRO care team will work closely with your oncology care team to provide the information you and your family need in order to be fully informed about your cancer and treatment options.
Although the choice of treatment depends largely on the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis, other factors that may influence your options are your age, your general health, your individual circumstances, and your own preferences. Cervical cancer can affect your sex life and your ability to have children. These concerns should also be considered as you make treatment decisions.
Once the radiation oncologist has examined you, he or she will discuss treatment options and the pros and cons of radiation treatment for you. A radiation therapy nurse will also be there to help explain treatment, discuss how sessions are scheduled, and provide information on how to take care of yourself during treatment.
Since radiotherapy for gynecological cancers requires the utmost precision, you’ll also go through a simulation at the MRO Therapy Center. Using image mapping as a guide, your care team will position you as you would be for treatment and take measurements to build a targeted treatment plan and pinpoint the radiation for the best possible outcome.
For questions to ask your provider, see our FAQ page.
We make treatment as easy as possible, so you can get back to living your life
Your own treatment schedule will be specifically tailored to you, at the MRO clinic that’s most convenient for you. Treatment will depend on the type of tumor you have, where it’s located, and what type of technology we’ll be using. You’ll also meet with your physician each week to monitor progress and touch base with your nurse, who can answer any questions you may have.
Managing side effects of radiation therapy for cancer
Like treatments for any serious disease, there are risks and side effects involved with radiation therapy. Most go away in the weeks or months after treatment, while others may not even appear until years later. Your oncologist will not advise you to have any treatment unless the potential benefits (controlling cancer or relieving symptoms) are greater than the known risks.
During your own cancer radiation treatment, you may experience one or more of the following side effects. If you experience these or other side effects, contact your MRO care team.
Side effects of external beam radiation therapy for cervical cancer can include:
- Upset stomach
- Diarrhea or loose stools (if radiation is given to the pelvis or abdomen)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Skin irritation ranging from mild, short-term redness to peeling
External beam radiation therapy is often given five days a week, for four to six weeks. The skin around the treatment area is carefully marked with permanent ink or tiny tattoos. Sometimes a custom-made mold of your pelvis and lower back is used to make sure you’re in the exact same position for each treatment.
Since each cancer is different, your treatment schedule is specifically tailored to you. Typically, treatments are five days a week, Monday through Friday, lasting between 5-30 minutes. MRO has 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin, so it’s easy to find treatment near you.
How to care for yourself during treatment
While radiation therapy itself may be painless, it impacts your body in ways that you can’t always see. In order to keep your body strong, here is a list of things to do during treatment:
Drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet.
Listen to your body when it comes to sleep. Don’t push yourself too hard, and rest when you’re tired. You will probably be sleeping more than normal, and that’s okay.
Be kind to the skin near your treatment area. Wash the area with mild soap and water, and do not put hot or cold packs on the skin. Contact your MRO care team before using lotions or ointments.
Find a support group or seek out help to manage the stress that comes with cancer treatment and a cancer diagnosis.
Make sure to tell your doctor about any medicines or supplements you take to ensure the medications are safe to use during treatment.
Follow your doctor’s orders and contact your MRO care team with any questions.
Life after treatment
After you’ve completed treatment, you’ll have follow-up visits with your MRO radiation oncologist and the doctor who referred you to MRO, especially in the first few months after treatment, to make sure there is no progression or recurrence. During this time, it’s important to report any new symptoms to your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated.
Follow-up care varies from patient to patient. Your physician may also recommend home care, occupational or vocational therapy, pain management, physical therapy, and/or participation in support groups.
For more information, visit our resources page.