Treating Cervical Cancer with Radiation Therapy

Treating Cervical Cancer with Radiation Therapy

Cervical cancer is among the most common cancers throughout the world, but where cervical cancer screening is routine, such as the United States, it is much less common. However, thousands of people in the United States still develop cervical cancer.

Luckily, cervical cancer can usually be detected very early and then prevented entirely, just be having routine Pap tests. When detected early, as most cases are, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treated cancers. So, it is very important for women to make sure that they are tested regularly for cervical cancer.

American Cancer Society provides guidelines that recommend women should begin testing starting at 21 years old. From then, to the time they are about thirty, they should have a Pap test every three years. Once they are 30 years old, women are then recommended to have a Pap test every five years combined with an HPV test every five years as well. This should continue all the way until 65 years of age. Then, unless they have had any pre-cancers found in previous 20 years, women over 65 can stop testing.

For those who develop cervical cancer or have a loved one who has, it is important to understand how cervical cancer is treated. Specifically, we’re going to outline how cervical cancer is treated with radiation therapy, which is a very common and effective form of treatment.

Cervical Cancer:

First, for those who don’t already know, it is important to quickly understand what cervical cancer is. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus. The cervix connects the body of the uterus (womb) to the vagina (birth canal). Cervical cancers always start from cells that undergo pre-cancerous changes. Once the pre-cancer changes take place, it usually takes another several years for it to develop to cancer, but it could take under a year. Not all pre-cancers turn into cancer and pre-cancers can be treated, so it is very important to maintain regular testing.

What is Radiation Therapy:

Radiation therapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer, especially cervical cancer. It utilizes high-energy waves and particles such as x-rays, electron beams, and gamma rays to destroy or damage cancer cells. Radiation therapy could be given alone or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

Radiation Treatments:

Of course, radiation therapy itself might seem relatively simple, but there are multiple ways to give radiation therapy. It might help to read about all of the different radiation treatment plans. As for cervical cancer, it is often treated with external beam radiation.

External Beam Radiation –  

One of the more popular ways to give radiation is external beam radiation (EBRT), which is when the cancer is targeted by x-rays which are aimed at the cancer from outside of the body. The x-rays can be delivered with different techniques such as image-guided radiation therapy and intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

The treatment is very similar to getting a standard x-ray, but the radiation dose is much stronger than that of a regular x-ray. The treatment itself only takes a few minutes, but the process of setting up and getting the patient into position for treatment takes a bit longer. Radiation treatments are usually given to the patient 5 days a week for 6 or 7 weeks total. EBRT is usually complimented with some type of chemotherapy depending on the specific circumstances of each individual.

The treatment itself is a painless procedure, but it does have side effects. The common side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue, sickness (usually upset stomach), diarrhea or loose stools, nausea and vomiting, and skin changes. When treating cervical cancer, EBRT also involves the following side effects:

·       Irritated bladder, causing discomfort and irregular urges to urinate (usually often)

·       Irritated vulva and vagina, making them sensitive and sore for a while and even causing irregular discharge in some cases

·       If the ovaries are affected, radiation can lead to menstrual changes and even early menopause

·       Low blood counts causing anemia (low red blood cells leading to feelings of tiredness) and leukopenia (low white blood cells leading to increased risk of infection)

The side effects start to improve in just a few weeks following the treatment, but the side effects are usually a bit worse when the treatment is combined with other therapies, such as chemo.

At the end of the day, the treatment plan will differ for each individual and the circumstances of their individual health and cancer. Regardless of the treatment plan, cervical cancer has a very high success rate when treated. This is largely due to the fact that it is very easy to detect early on, so it is critical to keep up with your routine testing. Also, if you have any specific questions about your tests or your treatment plan, never hesitate to ask your doctor or radiation oncologist!

By Russell McBurnie