Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer uses high energy waves to kill cancer cells. It may help shrink a tumor so a doctor can surgically remove it, and it may help kill any cancer cells that remain after surgery.
Typically, people undergo both radiation therapy and chemotherapy during vulvar cancer treatment. Doctors may also recommend radiation therapy for those who cannot undergo surgery. The therapy generally lasts
This article discusses radiation therapy for vulvar cancer, including how it helps and when it is an option. It also examines the types, duration, and side effects of radiation therapy, as well as whether it affects fertility.
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- inner and outer vaginal lips, or labia
- opening of the vagina and its glands
- the clitoris
- the mons pubis, which is the rounded area that covers the pubic bones
Vulvar cancer may develop on any of these parts. Radiation therapy uses high energy waves, such as X-rays, to damage or destroy these cancerous cells. It causes small breaks to occur in the DNA of the cells, which helps prevent them from growing and leads to cell death.
Although radiation can also affect nearby noncancerous cells, most recover afterward.
The radiation can then shrink a more advanced tumor so that surgeons can remove it. The smaller size of the tumor may mean surgery causes less harm to the surrounding tissue.
Doctors may also use radiation:
- after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may remain
- alone or with chemotherapy to treat cancer in people who cannot have surgery
- alone to treat lymph nodes in the pelvis and groin
According to the United Kingdom charity, Cancer Research UK, the use of radiation alone for vulvar cancer is uncommon.
There are two types of radiation therapy for vulvar cancer: external and internal.
The external variety involves the use of machines outside the body. There are
3D-CRT uses special computers to map the tumor’s location. Afterward, the therapy shapes and aims radiation beams at the tumor from several directions.
IMRT uses a computer-driven machine that moves the person around as it emits radiation. It shapes the beams and aims them at the tumor from various angles. IMRT can also adjust the strength of the beams to protect nearby tissues from receiving too high of a dose.
The internal variety of radiation therapy involves placing an implant in the cancer site or surrounding tissue. This delivers a high dose of radiation to the cancer, with very little radiation reaching the surrounding tissues. It may help reduce tumor size and alleviate symptoms.
In general, it takes
- tiredness, which can become severe after a few weeks
- skin changes, such as blistering
- vulvar sensitivity and soreness
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- swelling in the legs
- decreased red blood cell count, which can result in tiredness and shortness of breath
- decreased white blood cell count, which increases the risk of serious infection
- difficulty healing any surgical wounds if the radiation occurs after surgery
The side effects of radiation therapy can be worse if a person is undergoing both radiation and chemotherapy.
Some potential long-term side effects of radiation in general include:
- increased skin sensitivity, including to sunlight
- changes in how the skin feels to touch
- changes in hair texture or color, or permanent hair loss
- spider-like marks on the skin
If radiation causes changes to the skin of the vagina, it is
If the menstrual cycle does not restart, a person will be unable to become pregnant. People who may want to become pregnant in the future need to discuss these risks with a doctor before starting treatment. There may be alternative methods of conception that people can consider if needed.
- wear loose clothes and soft materials
- wash using only lukewarm water and mild soap
- protect the area from sunlight
- ask a doctor before shaving the area
- ask a doctor before applying products to the area, such as creams, ointments, or oils
- wash or bathe in hot water
- scratch or rub the area
- expose the skin to sunlight
- use any sticky bandages in the area
If a person needs a bandage, they should use paper tape and place it outside the area. When changing dressings, it is important to put the tape in a different place each time.
During external radiation treatment, it is
People undergoing internal radiation may need to avoid sex temporarily. A person can ask a doctor what to do if they are unsure.
Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer causes small breaks in the DNA of tumor cells, which helps to kill them. Doctors can use radiation therapy in several ways. They may use it to shrink a tumor before surgical removal, to kill any cancer cells left behind after surgery, or as an alternative to surgery for those who cannot have it.
Radiation therapy can last days or weeks. It can cause short-term effects, such as tiredness and changes in blood cell counts. Long-term effects may include changes in skin or hair color and texture.
Self-care measures can help with managing the side effects of radiation treatment, and there are ways to plan for any potential long-term effects, such as reduced fertility. Speak with a doctor about this before treatment.