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Radiotherapy is a commonly used treatment for women with cancer of the vagina. In some younger women, radiotherapy may be combined with chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using x-rays, which destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It is given in the radiotherapy department at the hospital.

The dose needed will depend on the exact type of cancer and whether it has spread into surrounding tissue, so you may find that you are having a different radiotherapy treatment from other women you meet.

Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:

  • From outside the body (external). A machine directs • radiation at the cancer and surrounding tissue.
  • From inside the body (internal). Radioactive material is • put in thin tubes into your body on or near the cancer.

Most women with cancer of the vagina have both external and internal radiotherapy.

External radiotherapy

This involves beams of radiation being directed at the cancer from outside the body. It is like having an x-ray.

You will be asked to visit the radiotherapy department for treatment every weekday for 4 to 6 weeks. Each treatment takes several minutes and is painless, but it can take several hours to undergo a simulator session (work out where the radiotherapy needs to be given), set up the machine, see the doctor and have any other necessary tests, such as blood tests. Blood tests are performed to make sure you are not becoming anaemic and to monitor your electrolytes, which can be affected by the treatment.

During the treatment, you will lie on a metal table under the radiotherapy machine. Once the machine is turned on, you will be alone in the room, but you will still be able to talk to the radiation therapist through an intercom.

External radiotherapy will not make you radioactive and it is safe for you to be with other people, including children, after your treatment.

Internal radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy involves an applicator (similar to a tampon) containing a radioactive substance being inserted into your vagina. It allows radiation to be given with minimal effect on nearby organs. The treatment may last several hours or a few days.

Sometimes, as well as the applicator, tiny radioactive needles may be placed into the area surrounding the vagina. If these are needed, they are put in under general anaesthetic and are removed once the treatment ends.

You will need to be cared for in a single room in hospital. Although it will be safe for your family and close friends to visit you for short periods, children and pregnant women will not be allowed to visit, to avoid any chance of them being exposed to even tiny amounts of radiation.

The safety measures and visiting restrictions might make you feel very isolated, frightened and depressed at a time when you might want people around you. The isolation only lasts while the radioactive wires are in place (usually a few days).