Radiation therapy is a way of treating cancers using X-rays or other types of radiation. It is also known as radiotherapy.
The two main types of radiation therapy are external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy.
What you need to know
Radiation therapy for cervical cancer
Cervical cancer can be treated with external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy also called internal radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy can be used:
- as the main treatment for early stage cancer (curative intent)
- after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells
- in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) - the chemotherapy makes the radiation therapy more effective
- when the cancer that has spread or has come back after treatment to help control symptoms.
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses beams of X-rays or other radiation to treat cancer from outside the body. The beams are produced by a large machine called a linear accelerator.
There are several different types of EBRT. Most involve having treatment 5 days a week for a number of weeks. Others only need a small number of treatments.
Before starting radiation therapy you will go to a simulation or planning session to work out how you will be positioned for treatment.
When you go for each treatment, most of the time is used to set you up in the right position. The actual radiation beam is only on for a few minutes.
EBRT is not painful and you won’t feel anything during the treatment. You will hear some buzzing noises and the machine will move around you but it won’t touch you. The radiation therapist can see and hear you throughout the treatment.
Brachytherapy for cervical cancer
Brachytherapy treats cancers by using small radiation sources inside the body. It is also called internal radiotherapy.
Brachytherapy can be used to treat cervical cancer by delivering radiation directly into the cervix. It can also be used to treat the top of the vagina to destroy any remaining cancer cells after the cervix has been removed.
Before each treatment, a plastic tube or applicator is placed into the cervix or vagina. The radioactive source is passed through this, left in place for around 10 minutes, and then removed. Most women have 3 to 5 treatments over 2 to 3 weeks.
The radiation oncology team
Health professionals who work as part of the radiation oncology team include:
- radiation oncologist
- radiation therapist
- radiation oncology nurse
- medical physicist.
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What to ask or talk about
Side effects of radiation therapy for cervical cancer
Most people get some side effects when having radiation therapy for cervical cancer. These can include:
- redness and other skin changes in the treatment area
- hair loss in the area being treated
- problems when passing urine – burning or going often
- swelling of the legs
Side effects that may occur later include:
- vaginal narrowing (stenosis)
- loss of fertility
- pelvic fracture
- impaired bowel function
- leakage of urine.
Will I be radioactive?
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) does not make patients radioactive.
Brachytherapy patients can be radioactive while they are receiving treatment. Those who go home with radioactive sources in their body will give out a very small amount of radiation which reduces over time.
Some other types of radiation therapy can also make patients radioactive for a time after treatment.
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Preparing for radiation therapy
Before radiation therapy, you will need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to and the possible side effects.
Some things you should know are:
- whether you need any tests before starting radiation therapy
- if you need to change your diet or medications
- when you have to be there
- if you need to have time off work
- if you will be able to drive after radiation therapy.
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