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What to Know About Radiation Therapy for Vulvar Cancer

Radiation therapy is one way to treat vulvar cancer. This treatment is also called radiotherapy. Radiation is a local treatment, which means it affects the cancer cells only in the area treated. Radiation is one of the two most common treatments for vulvar cancer. The other is surgery. In many cases, these treatments can cure vulvar cancer.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to control the growth of cancer cells or to shrink a tumor before surgery.

Radiation is used for:

  1. Locally advanced tumors. The goal is for the radiation to shrink the tumor. This makes it easier to remove the cancer during surgery. Your doctor may give you low-dose chemotherapy along with radiation to enhance the radiation's effectiveness. This is called chemoradiation.

  2. After radical vulvectomy, when the tumor involves the cut edges of the specimen (positive margins) and/or cancer cells are discovered in lymph nodes.

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For radiation therapy, you see a radiation oncologist. This doctor specializes in the use of radiation to kill cancer cells. He or she decides how often you need radiation and at what dose. The radiation oncologist will work closely with your gynecologic oncologist when making the treatment plan.

Radiation for vulvar cancer is given from a machine outside the body. This is called external radiation. Radiation may be directed at the vulva, at the area it can spread to in the groin, or to both areas. The person who gives you the radiation is called a radiation therapist. The experience is a lot like getting an X-ray, only it takes longer. Usually, you will have radiation therapy 5 days a week for several weeks in an outpatient setting. 

What to expect after radiation therapy

Radiation affects both normal cells and cancer cells. This means it can cause side effects. The side effects you experience depend on what part of your body is treated. These are some common side effects of external radiation used to treat vulvar cancer:

  • Skin irritation or redness

  • Tiredness or fatigue

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Problems with urination

  • Premature menopause, which means you stop having periods and can no longer get pregnant

  • Sexual changes

  • Lymphedema, or swelling that results when lymph nodes are affected by radiation

Some of these side effects go away when your treatment ends, and some can be prevented. Always tell your doctor or nurse about side effects you have, so that he or she can help ease them.