Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the treated area.
Some women have radiation therapy alone, with chemotherapy, or with chemotherapy and surgery. The provider may suggest radiation therapy instead of surgery for the small number of women who cannot have surgery for medical reasons. Most women with cancer that extends beyond the cervix have radiation therapy and chemotherapy. For cancer that has spread to distant organs, radiation therapy alone may be used.
There are two types of radiation therapy used to treat cervical cancer. They include external radiation therapy, in which a large machine outside the body is used to aim radiation at the tumor area. External radiation is usually administered on an outpatient basis five days a week for several weeks. This schedule helps protect healthy cells and tissues by distributing the total dose of radiation. No radioactive materials are put into the body for external radiation therapy.
In internal radiation therapy, tiny tubes containing a radioactive substance are inserted through the vagina and left in place for a few days. Hospitalization is required for internal radiation therapy, and often visitation is limited to protect visitors from radiation exposure. Once the implant is removed, the woman has no radioactivity in her body. Internal radiation may be repeated two or more times over several weeks.
In some cases, external and internal radiation therapies are both used to treat cervical cancer. Side effects depend mainly on the amount of radiation given and the part of the body that is treated. Radiation therapy to your abdomen and pelvis may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or bloody stools. Also, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. Although the side effects can be uncomfortable, your provider can usually treat or control them. These side effects gradually go away after treatment ends.
Radiation can have side effects many years later as well. These include scarring, painful intercourse, blood in your urine, and rarely fistula formation (abnormal connections between organs such as your bladder, vagina, and/or rectum).