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Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. The radiation may come from outside the body (external beam radiation) or from radioactive materials placed near or even directly in the tumor (internal radiation or brachytherapy). For cervical cancer, external beam radiation is often given along with low doses of chemo. Brachytherapy is often given after external beam radiation.

For external beam radiation, x-rays are given in a procedure that is much like having a diagnostic x-ray. For cervical cancer, treatments are often given 5 days a week for 6 or 7 weeks.

For internal radiation treatment, most often the radioactive substance is put in a device such as a cylinder or tube that was placed in the vagina.

There are 2 ways of giving this treatment: low-dose rate and high-dose rate.

For low-dose rate treatment, the patient stays in the hospital while the radioactive substance stays in place for a few days.

High-dose rate treatment is done as an outpatient over several treatments. For each treatment, the radioactive material is put in for a few minutes and then taken out.

Radiation can be used after surgery for early-stage cervical cancer. It is also the main treatment for later stage (stage II and higher) cancers. When it is the main treatment, it is often given with low doses of chemotherapy to help it work better.

Side effects of radiation

Side effects from radiation treatment are most common after the external beam type. These include:

  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Upset stomach
  • Loose bowels
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin changes – which can range from redness to blistering and peeling
  • Irritation of the vulva and vagina causing them to become red and sore
  • Low red blood cell counts (anemia), which sometimes needs to be treated with transfusion
  • Low white blood cell counts, which can increase the risk of serious infection

Radiation can also cause some long-term side effects, including:

  • Dryness or scar tissue in the vagina causing sex to be painful
  • Early change of life (menopause)
  • Problems with urination
  • Weak bones leading to fractures
  • Swelling in the leg (lymphedema)

Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have. Often there are medicines or other methods that will help. Because smoking increases the side effects from radiation, if you smoke, you should stop.

More detailed information about radiation for the treatment of cervical cancer can be found in our document Cervical Cancer.

Last Medical Review: 10/15/2014
Last Revised: 01/29/2016