Cervical Cancer

External radiotherapy



Radiotherapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells, while harming normal cells as little as possible. Radiotherapy for cancer of the cervix can be given externally or internally (see 'Internal radiotherapy'), and often as a combination of the two. It may be given if the cancer is not curable with surgery alone or if there is a high risk that the cancer may come back. It may be combined with chemotherapy.

External radiotherapy is usually given once a day, Monday to Friday, at a hospital outpatient clinic, a course of treatment lasts between four to six weeks. Most hospitals offer the opportunity for patients to become an inpatient if commuting daily for treatment becomes too tiring as the treatment progresses.

Patients attend a radiotherapy planning session before treatment begins so that the area to be treated can be marked out using small tattoos or indelible ink marks on the skin. Most women we interviewed found this procedure straightforward, apart from one who had found it distressing.

Many said that their radiotherapy was painless and straightforward. Several described suffering side effects after about two or three weeks of treatment. Some had more, or more severe, side effects than others. Many experienced at least some of the following' exhaustion, weakness, diarrhoea, sickness, a weak bladder and cystitis.

One woman whose skin was red and sore from her radiotherapy described this as burned (this is unusual nowadays) and discussed how it contributed to her exhaustion. Another mentioned that she had soreness in the area she had radiotherapy which disappeared two weeks after her treatment finished. A third experienced blistering on her bottom.

Long-term side effects and recovery

Most found that their sickness, exhaustion and bladder problems ended a few weeks after treatment but many had felt tired, and a few had bladder problems, for several months afterwards.

A woman whose skin had been red and sore said it had healed after a few weeks but had left marks on her body. Another had a weaker immune system and a painful hip five years after treatment. A third needed an operation to remove fluid from her uterus which is very unusual.

Many women had experienced long-term problems with their bowel. Some found their constipation or diarrhoea ended a few months after treatment, others had these side effects for several years. Most said their constipation or diarrhoea had become less frequent over time or was controlled with medication. One woman in her thirties describes how she still experiences problems with her bowel nine years after her treatment and she explains how she has learnt to live with it.

Radiotherapy causes the ovaries to stop working, leading to an early menopause. Most of the women interviewed had taken HRT (hormone replacement therapy). Many said it had helped to control their menopausal symptoms, apart from one who had difficulty finding a suitable type of HRT, and this had considerably affected her daily life for a couple of years.

Last reviewed April 2014.

Last updated March 2010.

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