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Radiation therapy is the treatment most often used for vaginal cancer. It involves using high-energy rays (such as gamma rays or x-rays) or particles (such as electrons, protons, or neutrons) to kill cancer cells.
There are 2 ways to treat vaginal cancer with radiation - external beam radiation therapy, and intracavity brachytherapy (also called internal radiation therapy). Vaginal cancer is most often treated with a combination of both external and internal radiation with or without low doses of chemotherapy.
With this type of treatment, radiation is delivered from outside the body in a procedure that's a lot like getting an x-ray. It 's sometimes used along with chemotherapy to treat more advanced cancers. It can shrink tumors so they can be easier to remove with surgery. Radiation alone might be used to treat lymph nodes in the groin and pelvis.
Another way to deliver radiation is to place radioactive material inside the vagina. There are 2 main types of intracavitary brachytherapy:
When given this way, the radiation mainly affects the tissue in contact with the cylinder. This means the radiation is less likely to cause bladder and bowel side effects.
Another type of brachytherapy, called interstitial radiation, uses radioactive material inside needles that are put right into the tumor and nearby tissues.
Radiation can destroy nearby healthy tissue along with the cancer cells. Side effects depend on the area being treated, the amount of radiation, and the way the radiation is given. Side effects tend to be more severe for external beam radiation than for brachytherapy.
Common short-term side effects of radiation therapy include:
The diarrhea caused by radiation can usually be controlled with over-the-counter medicines. Nausea and vomiting can be treated with medicines from your doctor. Skin that becomes raw and tender needs to be kept clean and protected to prevent infection.
Side effects tend to be worse when chemotherapy is given with radiation.
Radiation to treat vaginal cancer can also cause some long-term side effects. Many of them are caused by radiation damage to nearby organs. For instance, pelvic radiation can damage the ovaries, leading to early menopause. It can also weaken bones, making them more likely to break from a fall or other trauma.
Radiation to the pelvis can also severely irritate the intestines and rectum (called radiation colitis), leading to diarrhea and bloody stool. If severe, radiation colitis can cause holes or tears to form in the intestines (called perforations).
Pelvic radiation can cause problems with the bladder (radiation cystitis), leading to discomfort and an urge to urinate often. In rare cases, radiation can cause abnormal connections (called fistulas) to form between the vagina and the bladder, rectum, or uterus.
If the skin was irritated by radiation, when it heals it may be darker and not as soft. The hair may not grow back.
Radiation can cause the normal tissue of the vagina to become irritated and sore. As it heals, scar tissue can form in the vagina. The scar tissue can make the vagina shorter or more narrow (this is called vaginal stenosis). When this happens, vaginal intercourse (sex) can become painful. Stretching the walls of the vagina a few times a week can help prevent this problem.
One way to do this is to have vaginal sex at least 3 to 4 times a week. Since this might be uncomfortable while getting cancer treatment (and even after), another option is to use a vaginal dilator. A dilator is a plastic or rubber tube used to stretch out the vagina. It feels much like putting in a large tampon for a few minutes. Even if a woman is not interested in staying sexually active, keeping her vagina normal in size allows comfortable gynecologic exams. This is an important part of follow-up after treatment. Vaginal estrogens may also be used to relieve dryness and prevent painful sex and help maintain the size of the vagina. Still, vaginal dryness and pain with sex can be long-term side effects from radiation. See Sex and the Woman With Cancer to learn more.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Han K, Viswanathan AN. Brachytherapy in Gynecologic Cancers: Why Is It Underused? Curr Oncol Rep. 2016;18(4):26.
Orton A, Boothe D, Williams N, et al. Brachytherapy improves survival in primary vaginal cancer. Gynecol Oncol. 2016;141(3):501-506.
Saito T, Tabata T, Ikushima H, et al. Japan Society of Gynecologic Oncology guidelines 2015 for the treatment of vulvar cancer and vaginal cancer. Int J Clin Oncol. 2017 Nov 20.
Last Revised: March 19, 2018