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Cervical and vaginal cancers and radiation

Overview

Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the narrow organ at the bottom of the uterus that connects to the vagina. The cervix dilates during childbirth to allow for passage of a baby. The vagina and/or vulva can also be affected.

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About cervical, vulvar, vaginal cancers

Cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers are nearly always caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Vulvar cancer can also be caused by chronic irritation to the area. There are usually no signs or symptoms of early cervical cancer but it can be detected early with regular check-ups and usually develops slowly over time.

Types of cervical, vulvar, vaginal cancers

Every cervical cancer patient is different. Cervical cancer starts when the cells that line the cervix begin to develop abnormal changes. Over time, these abnormal cells may become cancerous or they may return to normal. The majority of women do not develop cancer from abnormal cells.

There are two main types of cervical, vulvar, vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Each one is distinguished by the appearance of cells under a microscope.

Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. Other types of cancer can develop in the cervix, but these are rare.

Vulvar and vaginal cancers are similar to cervical cancers, but are more likely squamous cell carcinomas.

Metastatic cervical/vulvar/vaginal cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Radiation treatment options

MRO’s radiation oncologists deliver high radiation doses to cancerous cells in the affected area, while sparing healthy tissue. By focusing the radiation directly on the tumor and surrounding tissues at risk of being involved, these therapies are designed to reduce the risk of common gastrointestinal and sexual function side effects associated with radiation therapy for cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancer.

We offer 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 high doses of radiation to cancer cells from outside the body, using a variety of machine-based technologies. It uses a machine called a linear accelerator to direct high-energy radiation beams to the exact location of the cancer.

Although each patient’s treatment course is different, most people receive treatments five days a week for 1 to 8 weeks, with breaks on the weekends. Your MRO radiation oncologist will determine the dosage, technique, and type of radiation to be used for your treatment. Patients who receive external beam radiation therapy are not radioactive during or after treatment.

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 10 to 20 minutes. In HDR brachytherapy, powerful radioactive sources travel through small tubes to the tumor for the amount of time prescribed by your MRO radiation oncologist. Depending on the area treated, you may receive several HDR treatments over a number of days. This treatment is often used for gynecologic cancers.

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.