Vaginal Cancer

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Treating Vaginal Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for vaginal cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are usually given intravenously (into a vein), by mouth, or applied to the skin in an ointment. Drugs taken by mouth or injected into a vein, called systemic chemotherapy, enter the bloodstream to reach throughout the body, making this treatment potentially useful for cancer that has spread to distant sites.

In systemic chemo, the drug enters the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body to reach and destroy the cancer cells. So far, systemic chemo has not been shown to work well in treating vaginal cancer. It may be helpful as a way to shrink tumors before surgery. Chemo is also sometimes given with radiation to make radiation work better.

Many chemo drugs work by attacking cells that are rapidly dividing. This is helpful in killing cancer cells, but these drugs can also affect normal cells, leading to side effects. Side effects of chemo depend on the type of drugs, the amount taken, and the length of time you are treated. Common side effects include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle, premature menopause, and infertility (inability to become pregnant). Most women with vaginal cancer, however, have gone through menopause.

Chemo can also affect the blood forming cells of the bone marrow, leading to low blood counts. This can cause:

  • Increased chance of infections (due to low white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (due to low blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (due to low red blood cells)

Other side effects can occur depending on which drug is used. For example, cisplatin can cause nerve damage (called neuropathy). This can lead to numbness, tingling, or even pain in the hands and feet.

Most side effects are temporary and stop when the treatment is over, but chemo drugs can have some long-lasting or even permanent effects. Ask your cancer care team about the chemo drugs you will receive and what side effects you can expect. Also be sure to talk with them about any side effects you do have so that they can be treated. For example, you can be given medicine to reduce or prevent nausea and vomiting.

In the past, chemotherapy has been mainly used to treat women with advanced cancer. Some doctors suggest that it be given along with radiation for women with less advanced disease (like it is used for cervical cancer). Some small groups of patients have been reported to have been treated this way, but using combined chemo and radiation has not yet been compared to other, more standard treatments in a clinical trial.

When chemo is given, the treatment is similar to that used for cervical cancer. Drugs that have been used include cisplatin, fluorouracil (5-FU), paclitaxel (Taxol®), and docetaxel (Taxotere®).

For more information on chemotherapy, see our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 01/30/2013
Last Revised: 02/13/2014