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Women's Health

Treatment choices for cervical and vaginal cancers


May 9, 2022

Which treatment you decide on depends on many things.

Cervical and vaginal cancers can be treated. Treatment can be for the purpose of curing the cancer and controlling symptoms the cancer is causing. Sometimes the goal of treatment is to control the growth of cancer and prevent it from spreading.

Surgery and radiation therapy are the most common treatments for these cancers. 

You should be evaluated by a specialist called a gynecologic oncologist if you are diagnosed with a vaginal or cervical cancer. This is a doctor specially trained to treat cancers of the female reproductive system. The specialist will talk with you about the treatment options that are best for you.

What determines the kind of treatment you receive?

The best treatment strategy for you for vaginal or cervical cancer depends on these factors:

  • The type of cancer you have. 
  • The size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread beyond the cervix or to other parts of your body (the stage of the cancer).
  • Your age and overall health. 
  • Whether you want to become pregnant in the future. 
  • Your preferences.
  • How likely it is that the treatment will cure the cancer. 

What to discuss with your doctor about vaginal or cervical cancer treatment options

Talk with your doctor about questions or concerns you have about gynecologic treatment options. Ask how well treatment is expected to work, and what the risks and side effects may be. Your doctor is the best person to answer these questions. 

You may want to ask how you’ll feel and how your body will function after treatment. Ask if you’ll have to change your normal activities, and how treatment will affect your sex life. 

Your doctor may advise a certain treatment, or may offer more than one and ask which you’d prefer. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option.

It may take time to decide which is the best treatment for you. Ask your doctor how much time you can take to explore options. Learn as much as you can. You may want to get a second opinion from another doctor before deciding on gyecolotreatment. 

Local vs. systemic treatment

Treatments fall into two main categories: local or systemic. 

Local treatments remove, destroy or control cancer cells in one area. 

Systemic treatments destroy or control cancer cells throughout the body. 

You may have just one type of treatment, or a combination.

Local treatments include: 

  • Surgery. The aim of surgery is to take out all the cancer.
    During cervical cancer surgery, nearby pelvic lymph nodes might also be removed to test them for spread of the cancer. Surgery is used for early-stage cancer that has not spread beyond the cervix. Surgery often cures the cancer. 
    Surgical treatment is rarely an option for vaginal cancer; women with vaginal cancer rarely have nodes removed for testing.
  • Radiation. This treatment kills cancer cells by using high-energy X-rays aimed at the tumor. Radiation can be from outside your body (external beam radiation). It can also be done using radioactive material placed inside your body (internal radiation, also called brachytherapy). Radiation might be the only treatment needed for smaller cancers. Many times both types of radiation are used. Radiation is a treatment for both cervical and vaginal cancers.

Systemic treatments include: 

  • Chemotherapy. This treatment uses medicines to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy (chemo) travels through your blood around your whole body to kill cancer cells in the cervix and any cancer cells that may have spread beyond the cervix. Some women who get chemotherapy for cervical or vaginal cancers get it along with radiation. The chemo helps radiation work better. 
    Chemotherapy does not work very well on its own against cervical cancer.
  • Targeted therapy. This treatment uses medicines that are made to attack and kill cancer cells while not harming healthy cells.  
  • Immunotherapy (biologic therapy). This treatment uses medicines that help boost your immune system to fight cancer cells. 

Ask about clinical trials

Researchers always seek new ways to treat cancer. These new, and maybe better, treatments are tested in clinical trials. Before starting treatment, ask your doctor if there are any clinical trials you should consider.

Thumbnail photo, older woman facing camera, talking with a younger doctor about vaginal and cervical cancer treatment options.

Vanderbilt Gynecologic Oncology provides expert care for women with cancers affecting the female reproductive system. These specialists offer sophisticated, compassionate care with the latest treatments, for even the most complicated diagnoses. Call the team at 615-936-8422.

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