Radiotherapy for cervical cancer
Radiotherapy is a treatment that uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Two types of radiotherapy can be used for cervical cancer:
- External beam radiotherapy
- Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)
Radiotherapy for cervical cancer may be given
- Instead of surgery
- After a hysterectomy to destroy any remaining tumour
- With chemotherapy to make the treatment work better (chemoradiation)
- To relieve symptoms if the cancer is advanced or has come back. For example, pain, discomfort, bleeding
You might have brachytherapy during or after a course of external radiotherapy.
External beam radiotherapy
High-energy X-rays are aimed directly at your cancer cells to destroy them. The radiation only affects the cells in the treated area.
Your doctor will let you know how many sessions or treatments you need.
Usually you come into hospital for treatment every weekday for a number of weeks, with a break at the weekend.
You will need to go to hospital before your treatment for at least one planning session.
Read more about radiotherapy
This is surgery before external radiotherapy to move one of your ovaries from the pelvis. This is to try to protect it from being damaged by the radiation, to keep your fertility. Read more about fertility and cervical cancer.
Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)
Brachytherapy gives a high dose of radiation to a small area. You will normally have 3 treatments, but this may vary.
Before treatment you will be taken to theatre to have special tubes inserted into your cervix and sometimes your womb. You will usually have a spinal anaesthetic (which means you are awake but are numb from the waist down) for this procedure. Then you will have a scan to help your doctors plan your treatment. This can take 2-3 hours.
When the plans are ready you will be brought to a special room for treatment.
The radiation therapist will connect the tubes to the treatment machine. You will be on your own during treatment. However, there is an intercom and camera in the room so the doctor, radiation therapist and nurse can see and talk to you from outside. Treatment can be interrupted if necessary.
Once the treatment is finished (5-10 minutes) the tubes are removed. This may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be painful. You will then be taken back to the ward and usually you will be able to go home the same evening. For some internal radiotherapy you may have to stay in hospital for a few days. (Image: CRUK / Wikimedia Commons)
Brachytherapy treatment after a hysterectomy
Treatment involves putting a plastic tube into the vagina on 3 or 4 occasions. The tube stays in place for 5-10 minutes. You may feel a pressure sensation but you should not feel pain.
Side-effects of cervical radiotherapy
Short-term possible side-effects
- Cervical and back passage irritation
- Changes to your bowel habits (constipation or diarrhoea)
- Skin irritation and rashes in the area
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Feeling sick
- Problems passing urine
- Vaginal discharge
- Abdominal (tummy) cramps
These side-effects usually last for 2 to 4 weeks after treatment.
Longer term possible side-effects
- Early menopause
- Narrowing of the vagina
- Difficulty having sex
- Bladder or bowel problems
These can happen months or even years after treatment. We have more information on coping with side-effects
For more information
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