Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer
Also known as radiotherapy, radiation therapy uses a controlled dose of radiation, such as x-rays, to kill or damage cancer cells. For more on this, see our general section on Radiation therapy.
Learn more about:
- When can you have radiation therapy?
- External radiation therapy
- Internal radiation therapy
- Short-term side effects of radiation therapy
- Long-term or late effects of radiation therapy
- Video: What is radiation therapy?
When can you have radiation therapy?
Whether you have radiation therapy will depend on the stage of the cancer, its size, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes and, if so, how many nodes are affected.
You can have radiation therapy:
- after surgery to get rid of any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (adjuvant treatment)
- before surgery to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove (neoadjuvant treatment)
- instead of surgery
- to control symptoms of advanced cancer (palliative treatment).
This is the most common type of radiation therapy for vulvar cancer. You will lie on a treatment table while a machine, called a linear accelerator, directs radiation towards the affected areas of the pelvis. EBRT is given daily, Monday to Friday, over 5–6 weeks. The exact number of sessions you have will depend on the type and size of the cancer. Each session takes about 20 minutes.
Radiation therapy to the vulva and groin doesn’t hurt, but it can cause short-term and long-term side effects. EBRT will not make you radioactive. It is safe for you to be with other people, including children, after your treatment.
Also called brachytherapy, this delivers radiation therapy directly to the tumour from inside your body. It is rarely used for vulvar cancer. For more on this, see Radiation therapy for vaginal cancer.
Short-term side effects of radiation therapy
The side effects you experience will vary depending on the dose of radiation and the areas treated. Many will be short-term side effects. These often get worse during treatment and just after the course of treatment has ended.
|skin reactions||The vulva may become sore and swollen, and feel like a bad sunburn. It may start by being pink or red and feeling itchy, and then peel, blister or weep. Your treatment team will recommend creams and pain relief to use until the skin heals. Wash the vulvar area with lukewarm, slightly salted water, and avoid perfumed products and talcum powder.|
|fatigue||Your body uses a lot of energy to recover and travelling to treatment can also be tiring. The fatigue may last for weeks after treatment ends.|
|bladder and bowel problems||Radiation therapy can irritate the bladder and bowel. You may pass urine more often or with a burning sensation. Bowel motions may be more frequent, urgent or loose (diarrhoea), and you may pass more wind. Less commonly, you may have some blood in your faeces (poo). Always tell your doctor about any bleeding.|
|vaginal discharge||Radiation therapy may cause or increase vaginal discharge. Let your treatment team know if it smells bad or has blood in it. Do not wash inside the vagina with douches as this may cause infection.|
Long-term or late effects of radiation therapy
Side effects can take several weeks to get better, though some may continue longer. Some side effects from radiation therapy may not show up until many months or years after treatment. These are called late effects.
|hair loss||You may lose your pubic hair. Sometimes, this can be permanent. Radiation therapy will not affect the hair on your head or other body areas.|
|bladder, bowel and rectal changes||Bladder changes (e.g. frequent or painful urination) and bowel changes (e.g. diarrhoea or wind) can appear months or years after radiation therapy ends. In some cases, a bowel blockage can occur. In rare cases, you may experience some bleeding from the rectum. Let your doctor know if you have pain in the abdomen, have any bleeding or cannot open your bowels.|
|lymphoedema||Like surgery, radiation therapy can increase the risk of lymphoedema. If the lymph nodes and vessels have been removed during surgery or scarred during radiation therapy, lymph fluid can’t drain properly. Lymph fluid can become trapped, causing the legs, vulva or mons pubis to swell.|
|narrowing of the vagina||The vagina can become drier, shorter and narrower (vaginal stenosis), which may make having sex and follow-up pelvic examinations uncomfortable or difficult. Your treatment team will suggest ways to prevent this.|
|menopause||If you are premenopausal, radiation therapy to the pelvis can stop the ovaries producing hormones, which causes early menopause. Talk to your radiation oncologist about menopause or any fertility issues before starting treatment.|
Video: What is radiation therapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about radiation therapy.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Alison Brand, Director, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jane Conroy-Wright, Consumer; Rebecca James, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Suparna Karpe, Clinical Psychologist, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Pearly Khaw, Consultant Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Sally McCoull, Consumer; A/Prof Orla McNally, Gynaecological Oncologist and Director, Oncology/Dysplasia, The Royal Women’s Hospital, and Director, Gynaecology Tumour Stream,Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Haley McNamara, Social Worker and Project Manager, Care at End of Life Project, Queensland Health, QLD; Tamara Wraith, Senior Clinician – Physiotherapy, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC.
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