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Cervical Cancer

Chemotherapy for cervical cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is not often used alone to treat cervical cancer but is being used more frequently in combination with radiotherapy (chemoradiation). Several clinical trials have shown that giving cisplatin (a type of chemotherapy drug) at intervals during radiotherapy can improve effectiveness in destroying cancer cells, reduce the risk of the cancer returning and increase the number of women who are cured.

Sometimes chemotherapy drugs are also given as part of a clinical trial to find out which other drugs or comvination of drugs may help, or as palliative care (to keep up a good quality of life and to prolong life for as long as possible when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body).

Chemotherapy can cause side effects, which varies according to the type of drug used, the amount given and individual reactions. Some people have few side effects, while others experience a number of them. Many of these can be controlled with medication.

We interviewed two women who had chemotherapy (using cisplatin) once a week in combination with radiotherapy. One of them describes her experience.

 

Describes what it was like having chemotherapy injected into her spine, but only the thought of...

Describes what it was like having chemotherapy injected into her spine, but only the thought of...

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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And then the place that I had my chemotherapy in it was, I was actually a day patient. So you go in for the day and you've got chairs around this room with sort of padded arms and you go in and you choose where you want to sit. And this little television there and the first thing that you have in, for my treatment was saline. And that's a big bag of saline with magnesium and potassium because when you're having chemotherapy obviously you've got a lot of drugs that your body is trying to process and it means the kidneys are working quite hard and it means that they're losing magnesium potassium so that's obviously what you need in your system. So they put a big bag of that in followed by a drug that makes your kidneys work faster. So they're processing, they're working really hard to try and flush that because cisplatin can actually be, tends to be, there's a greater risk of it being damaging to your kidneys basically and that's their concern. So you have that to make your kidneys work faster and then you have your bag of chemotherapy. Although before they put that in they put an anti sickness drug into you as well which just goes through the cannula so you don't have to be injected again. 

The cisplatin goes up and then you have another bag of saline to help the cisplatin flush through. And this time you're literally up and down. Your drip is basically on a wheelie thing so you can go to the loos and you're literally up and down to the loo. I mean every 20 minutes if you're anything like me because your kidneys are really really working and you've got all that fluid, extra fluid that's been put into your system so it's not surprising you keep going to the loo. And then I either had the option of having another bag of fluid or else I could drink a couple of litres of water. So I took that option instead so I just drank that. 

Chemotherapy in combination with radiotherapy is likely to cause greater side effects than chemotherapy or radiotherapy alone. Some side effects of cisplatin are nausea and vomiting, increased risk of infection, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, mild effects to the kidneys, ringing in the ears, taste changes, loss of appetite and diarrhoea.

Both women experienced some temporary side effects. Extreme tiredness and lethargy was common. Neither of the women lost their hair.

 

She describes her tiredness and throat ulcers after her first chemotherapy (cisplatin) session.

She describes her tiredness and throat ulcers after her first chemotherapy (cisplatin) session.

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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And that day I came home and I was tired and I had a pain, a sore throat and I couldn't swallow the food that day. But one thing was very good, I never stopped eating. I was always eating and I made such an effort to have a meal that day because I couldn't swallow. It was fish and I couldn't swallow at all. And the next day I went to the GP and she said 'Oh you've got ulcers from the chemo,' and she gave me some medicine. And Saturday I went to work. I didn't go Friday or Thursday but I went on Saturday and I remember when I was working I was feeling so tired, so tired, like all the strengths were getting away from my body. And I remember coming home, and I used to live on the first floor and it was such an effort for me to go upstairs, it was like I was losing my strength. And I remember I had a shower and I went straight to bed. And I did sleep OK. And the next day I was still tired and tired. And I went for lunch at my sister-in-laws and I couldn't swallow the food and I was so tired. So I said to my boyfriend 'I go home, I need to lie down,' and I just lay down the whole day. 

One woman's blood count became very low and she was admitted to hospital for a brief period. She did not lose her appetite and continued to eat well during chemotherapy. The other experienced a great deal of sickness but found that medication, ginger ale and mints helped to ease this side effect. Both found that some preferences for types of food, drink or particular smells altered during chemotherapy.

 

She explains how medication, mints and ginger ale helped to reduce her sickness during...

She explains how medication, mints and ginger ale helped to reduce her sickness during...

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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And so I took my anti sickness drugs when I was supposed to, went home and I did feel really sick, I felt really sick and I was really surprised how sick I felt. And of course I knew I had to go up the next morning because you're still having to go for your radiotherapy session so you can't just lie in bed and think 'oh God I feel awful'. So I was surprised at how sick I felt. And I actually ended up talking to the doctors about it saying "I feel really sick," and he ended up giving me some steroids to take with it which is what a lot of other cancer patients have when they're having chemotherapy treatment because the steroids make you feel a bit more up and they were great. And actually with each chemotherapy session I had, I found I felt iller quicker. And I don't know whether or not it's because your body is very clever it thinks oh I you God what's happening now and then it starts sort of you know, whether or not it's psychosomatic. I'm not entirely sure it is even psychosomatic. I think that actually by the last one, within 10 minutes of having it gone into me, I just felt awful. But I think the drugs really do help and I think that you should make sure that you do take them. 

I had radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time so when I was having my chemo I had lots of ginger ale, ginger ale more than I had lemonade actually, always had mints in my handbag. Because I'd end up being in a taxi and I always used to get a taxi to the hospital and thinking 'my God I feel really sick'. So I always had mints with you because I think mints and ginger and lemon and things like that are really good if you're feeling a bit queasy. 
 

She describes changes in her preferences for taste and smells during chemotherapy (cisplatin).

She describes changes in her preferences for taste and smells during chemotherapy (cisplatin).

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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And certain foods I couldn't eat. And still I was drinking a lot of orange juice and now I can't drink it. When I drink it, it's a funny smell, a funny taste, so I can't drink it. And I remember I couldn't stand my deodorant. I would use it for years and at this point I couldn't stand the smell of it. And there's no smell, it's a roll-on, Nivea, there's no smell but at this point I felt a strong smell and I had to stop using it. It was the same with perfume. I could smell it, it was very strong, other people couldn't feel it but the smells were horrible.

But there was things like apples, I never liked apples but at this point I was crazy about apples and I'd eat apples every day. I used to say to my sister and to my boyfriend it looks like I'm pregnant because when we're pregnant we've got this cravings isn't it. And it was pitta bread as well and now I can't eat pitta bread, I can't eat apples and drink orange juice.

One woman found that she couldn't watch television, read or be in a brightly coloured room after a chemotherapy session. 
 

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Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated July 2017.

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