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Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as gamma rays or x-rays) and particles (such as electrons, protons, or neutrons) to kill cancer cells. When used to treat vulvar cancer, a large machine sends the radiation into the body in a procedure that's a lot like getting an x-ray. This is called external beam radiation therapy or ERBT.
Radiation is most often used along with chemotherapy when treating vulvar cancer. You might hear this called chemoradiation.
It can be used to treat more advanced cancers. The goal is to shrink the tumor so it can be removed with surgery. Sometimes this allows the doctor to remove the cancer while causing less damage to healthy tissues.
Radiation can also be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind.
Radiation alone may be used to treat lymph nodes in the groin and pelvis.
It also may be used with or without chemo as the main treatment for women who are not well enough to have surgery.
There are ways to give EBRT so that the radiation is focused more precisely on the tumor. This let doctors give higher doses of radiation to the tumor while reducing the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues.
3D-CRT uses special computers to precisely map the location of the tumor. Radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at it from several directions, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues.
IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. It uses a computer-driven machine that moves around the patient as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the doses reaching nearby normal tissues, like the bones, bowel, rectum, and bladder. This lets doctors deliver an even higher dose to the cancer.
Common short-term side effects of radiation therapy to the pelvis include:
These side effects tend to be worse when chemotherapy is given with radiation.If you have side effects from radiation, tell your cancer care team. There are often ways to relieve them.
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.
Forner DM, Mallmann P. Neoadjuvant and definitive chemotherapy or chemoradiation for stage III and IV vulvar cancer: A pooled Reanalysis. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2017;212:115-118.
Martinez-Castro P, Poveda A, Guinot JL, Minig L. Treatment of Inoperable Vulvar Cancer: Where We Come From and Where Are We Going. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2016;26(9):1694-1698.
National Cancer Institute. Vulvar Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. October 13, 2017. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/vulvar/patient/vulvar-treatment-pdq#section/_90 on January 4, 2018.
National Comprehensive Cancer network. NCCN Clinical Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines). Vulvar Cancer (Squamous Cell Carcinoma) Version 1.2018 – October 27, 2017.
Rao YJ, Chin RI, Hui C, et al. Improved survival with definitive chemoradiation compared to definitive radiation alone in squamous cell carcinoma of the vulva: A review of the National Cancer Database. Gynecol Oncol. 2017;146(3):572-579.
Rao YJ, Chundury A, Schwarz JK, et al. Intensity modulated radiation therapy for squamous cell carcinoma of the vulva: Treatment technique and outcomes. Adv Radiat Oncol. 2017;2(2):148-158.
Last Revised: January 16, 2018
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