Chemotherapy for Vaginal Cancer

How is chemo used to treat vaginal cancer?

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

Chemo is most often used along with radiation therapy to treat vaginal cancer.

Chemo is the main treatment for vaginal cancer that has spread. It can also help shrink tumors before surgery. When it's used before surgery, it may be given along with radiation to make the radiation work better.

Chemo drugs commonly used

Because vaginal cancer is rare, there haven’t been many studies to see which chemo drug is best. So, at this time, there's no standard or "best" chemo treatment plan. Treatment choices are made based on each woman's needs. Most often, doctors use the same types of drugs that are used for cervical cancer. Drugs that have been used include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Carboplatin
  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol®)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere®)
  • Irinotecan

Chemo side effects

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 some 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.

More information about chemotherapy

For more general information about how chemotherapy is used to treat cancer, see Chemotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Diao Y, Jiao J, Song K, et al. Effects of neoadjuvant chemotherapy on patients with primary vaginal squamous cell carcinoma. Mol Clin Oncol. 2017;7(3):395-398.

Miyamoto DT, Viswanathan AN. Concurrent chemoradiation for vaginal cancer. PLoS One. 2013;8(6):e65048.  

Last Medical Review: March 19, 2018 Last Revised: March 19, 2018

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