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Cervical cancer is a type of gynecological cancer which develops in the cells of the cervix, the lower end of the uterus. Today, options for treating cervical cancer, including radiation therapy, continue to advance. Throughout your cancer journey—from screening and diagnosis to treatment and survivorship—your medical care team is with you every step of the way.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most commonly occurring form of cancer in women.

Brachytherapy is considered the most important component of treatment for cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer

Your treatment plan

Once you are diagnosed, your specific course of treatment—including the type of treatment or combination of therapies—is determined by your doctor. For cervical cancer, treatment typically starts with external beam therapy to the pelvis and/or lower abdomen, followed by brachytherapy to deliver additional radiation directly into the tumor.

Cervical cancer

Radiation therapy treatment techniques

There are several different types of radiation therapy techniques that may be useful for cervical cancer treatment, including:

Cervical cancer

Possible side effects

Side effects are cumulative, which means they can develop over several weeks or months as the body responds to radiation. You can ask your radiation oncologist what you might expect from your specific treatment. These are some common side effects of cervical cancer radiation therapy:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or loose stools
  • Low blood counts
  • Vaginal irritation
  • Vaginal stenosis (formation of scar tissue in the vagina)
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Menstrual changes
  • Rectal bleeding/rectal scarring
  • Urinary changes
  • Weakened bones (in the pelvis)
  • Swelling of the leg(s)

Cervical cancer

Your treatment journey

When it comes to preparing for your cervical cancer treatment, knowledge is power. That includes knowing what to expect during your treatment journey so you can move forward one informed and empowered step at a time. Here is a brief outline of what you can expect during treatment. The details of some steps may differ, depending on your particular case.

Step 1: Consultation

First, you'll meet with your radiation oncologist to discuss what type of radiation treatment options are recommended for your specific case, and make a decision together about your treatment.

Step 2: Simulation

As part of your treatment planning, the exact area of the tumor must first be determined. This is usually done using a CT scan, short for computed tomography, providing a detailed 3-D image of the treatment area using x-rays.

For EBRT, sometimes temporary skin marks or even tiny tattoos (about the size of a freckle) are made on your body to help the radiation therapist position you correctly each day for treatment.

For brachytherapy, to help make your treatment as precise as possible, your physician will insert thin plastic or metal tubes called “applicators” in your uterus and vagina.

Step 3: Treatment planning

After simulation is complete for either EBRT or brachytherapy, your radiation oncologist will develop your personalized treatment plan, taking into account the location and type of cancer you have, your medical history, lab tests, and other factors—all to determine your best course of treatment.

Step 4: Positioning for treatment

For your EBRT treatment, your radiation therapist will position you on the radiation machine’s treatment couch. The couch will be adjusted so the radiation laser targets the small mark that was put on your skin during your simulation, ensuring you are properly aligned for treatment.

For your brachytherapy, you’ll be taken to a treatment area called a “vault,” designed specifically for radiation treatments. This is where the afterloader machine, which delivers your brachytherapy, is located. Your radiation therapist will position you on the radiation machine’s treatment couch and connect the applicators to the afterloader machine using tubes.

Step 5: Start of treatment

Your EBRT treatment is delivered by a machine called a linear accelerator, or linac. Most linacs have a gantry, which will move around you to deliver the radiation. You won’t see, hear, feel or smell the beam. Treatment sessions usually take approximately 15 minutes. Your first treatment session may be a little longer. Typical treatment with radiation therapy will require you to come for treatment five days a week.

During your brachytherapy treatment, which will take just a few minutes, you will hear whirring and might see some flashing lights from the machine, but you won’t feel anything. When the treatment is finished, the radiation source retracts into the machine and there is no remaining radiation in the room or you. The therapists will then disconnect the applicators from the machine. Depending on how your treatment is being delivered, the internal applicators may be removed in the treatment room, or you will be taken to a recovery area with the applicators still in place.

Step 6: Post-treatment and follow-up care

Every patient is different, but most patients can continue daily activities during treatment, despite side effects. After your final treatment, the effects of brachytherapy continue. So, you may experience some ongoing side effects in the weeks and months after treatment. Your radiation oncologist will schedule periodic follow-up appointments to monitor your progress and the results of your treatment.

Cervical cancer

Helpful resources for cervical cancer

Patient guide

Patient guide

Download the brachytherapy for cervical cancer patient guide for more information about what to expect during treatment.

Questions to ask

Some important things you may want to find out from your doctor before undergoing treatment for cervical cancer.