- How is vulvar cancer treated?
- Surgery for vulvar cancer
- Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer
- Chemotherapy for vulvar cancer
- Topical therapy for vulvar cancer
- Clinical trials for vulvar cancer
- Complementary and alternative therapies for vulvar cancer
- Treatment options for squamous cell vulvar cancer by stage
- Treatment of vulvar adenocarcinoma
- Treatment of vulvar melanoma
- More treatment information about vulvar cancer
Chemotherapy for vulvar 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 chemo, enter the bloodstream and reach throughout the body, making this treatment potentially useful for cancer that has spread to distant sites.
The role of chemo in treating vulvar cancer remains to be determined. In more advanced disease, chemo might be given with radiation therapy before surgery. This combined treatment may shrink the tumor, making it easier to remove it with surgery. So far, the results of treating vulvar cancers that have spread to other organs with chemo have been disappointing.
Many of the drugs used in cancer chemo 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:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss or increase of appetite
- Temporary loss of hair
- Mouth or vaginal sores
- Changes in the menstrual cycle, premature menopause, and infertility (inability to become pregnant). Most women with vulvar cancer, however, have already gone through menopause.
Chemo often affects 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 cell count)
- Increased chance of bleeding and bruising (due to low blood platelet count)
- Tiredness (due to anemia, that is, low red blood cell count)
Other side effects can occur depending on what drug is used. Most side effects are temporary and stop when the treatment is over, but chemo drugs can have some long-lasting or even permanent effects. For example, cisplatin can cause nerve damage (called neuropathy). This can lead to numbness, tingling, or even pain in the hands and feet.
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.
For more information about chemo and its side effects, see our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Last Medical Review: 02/05/2013
Last Revised: 02/13/2014