Radiotherapy treats cancer using high-energy rays (radiation). It destroys the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. This is the most commonly used treatment for vaginal cancer.
Using radiotherapy to treat cancer in the pelvic area is called pelvic radiotherapy. We have more detailed information about pelvic radiotherapy.
Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) is used to give an extra dose of radiation to the tumour after external radiotherapy. This can be done in two ways:
This treatment may be used for cancers in the lower part of the vagina. During an operation, the doctor places radioactive needles, tubes or seeds into the cancer. These then release a dose of radiation to the surrounding area.
The doctor gently inserts an applicator (similar to a plastic tampon) into the vagina. It is connected to a machine, which sends radiation into the applicator. The treatment may last several minutes or a few hours, depending on the equipment used.
Chemotherapy is often given with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation. The chemotherapy drugs make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy. The combination of treatments can be more effective than radiotherapy on its own.
The chemotherapy drug most commonly used is cisplatin. You usually have it once a week throughout your radiotherapy.
Your cancer doctor, nurse or radiographer will tell you about the likely side effects of pelvic radiotherapy. They can give you advice on how to manage them and tell you about the treatments that can help.
Most side effects are temporary. They may get worse for a couple of weeks after treatment. After this, side effects usually improve slowly over a few weeks.
Changes in your blood
You may have a light vaginal discharge after treatment has finished. If it continues or becomes heavy, tell your cancer doctor or specialist nurse.
Radiotherapy to the pelvic area can sometimes cause late effects. These are side effects that do not go away, or that develop months or years later. If these happen, there are lots of ways they can be managed or treated.
We have more detailed information about coping with late effects of pelvic radiotherapy. For vaginal cancer treatment late effects may include:
Bowel and bladder changes
After radiotherapy, some women may have permanent changes to their bowel or bladder.
Effects on the vagina
Radiotherapy can make your vagina narrower and less stretchy. The vaginal walls may be dry and thin, and can stick together. This can make penetrative sex and internal examinations uncomfortable.
This can feel uncomfortable. Creams, gels, lubricants or pessaries (small pellets that are put inside the vagina) can help.
After pelvic radiotherapy, the blood vessels in the lining of the vagina can become fragile. This means they can bleed more easily, especially after sex.
We also have more information about female pelvic side effects and your sex life.