Radiation Therapy for Cervical Cancer

How cervical cancer is treated with radiation therapy

Radiation therapy room
Radiation therapy room. Alexander Gatsenko/E+/Getty Images

Radiation therapy uses certain types of energy to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells. It works by damaging a cancer cell's DNA, making it unable to multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Healthy cells that are damaged during radiation are resilient and are able to fully recover.

Radiation therapy may be given alone or it may accompany chemotherapy, surgery or both.

The decision to combine radiation therapy with other types of treatment depends on the stage of cervical cancer and other factors.

Radiation therapy may be given:

  • By itself as the sole treatment method
  • After surgery
  • After or in conjunction with chemotherapy treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs, such as 5-FU and cisplatin, make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation. Both of these chemotherapy drugs are used to treat cervical cancer.

Types of Radiation Therapy Used to Treat Cervical Cancer

Two types of radiation therapy are used to treat cervical cancer: external radiation and internal radiation. One or both types of radiation treatment may be used to treat cervical cancer.

External Beam Radiation - Systemic Therapy

Also called systemic therapy, this type of radiation is given on an outpatient basis. A typical treatment schedule is five days per week for six to seven weeks. It uses x-ray or gamma ray energy to deliver treatment to the affected area.

In women with cervical cancer, pelvic external radiation is given by a machine that resembles an x-ray machine but delivers a much stronger dose of radiation. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes and does not cause any pain. It is usually combined with chemotherapy, and this regimen is called concurrent chemoradiation.

Internal Radiation - Brachytherapy

This type of radiation therapy is also called brachytherapy. It uses an implant (a seed, catheter or rod) that is sealed with a radioactive substance. The implant is placed into the uterus through the vagina and treatment is delivered. Low-dose rate brachytherapy is done on an inpatient basis, with the radiation-containing instruments in place for a few days. The patient is allowed to leave following treatment. High-dose rate brachytherapy is an outpatient procedure, done with several treatments. The radioactive material is placed for a brief time and then removed and the patient returns a week or longer for another treatment. Brachytherapy is often done right after external beam radiation.

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Side effects of radiation vary from patient to patient. It all depends on how often treatment is given and at what degree. The three most commonly experienced side effects are:

  • Fatigue
    All radiation patients experience some degree of fatigue during treatment. This is the time when a cancer patient should really utilize her support system to help with chores, errands, child care and other small tasks. Short naps throughout the day and getting uninterrupted sleep at night really make a difference in a person's energy level.
  • Skin Problems
    The skin that has been exposed to treatment may appear red, sunburned, tan, or irritated. The skin is very sensitive to radiation and should be treated as so. Patients should avoid perfumes or scented body lotions, tight fitting clothing, and exposing the area to sun (during treatment and for at least one year after).
  • Loss of Appetite
    Loss of appetite can lead to fatigue and nutritional deficiencies. It is very important to keep up strength during any cancer treatment, and nutrition is one of the best resources to do that.


"Radiation Therapy for Cervical Cancer." Detailed Guide: Cervical Cancer. 02/26/2015. American Cancer Society. 

"Radiation Therapy and You." 20 APR 2007. National Cancer Institute.