Chemotherapy for vulval cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Chemotherapy for vulval cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. Your specialist may suggest chemotherapy to try to control vulval cancer that has spread. Or, you may have chemotherapy alongside radiotherapy.

Having chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is most often given into the bloodstream through a drip or by injection. But some drugs are available as tablets or creams you put on your skin.

You generally have chemotherapy in cycles of treatment, with breaks in between. It is difficult to generalise because there are different timetables for different chemo drugs. But you are most likely to have treatment for one to 5 days, with a break of 2 or 3 weeks between each treatment.

Side effects

Chemotherapy side effects vary. Each drug has a different set of side effects and each person will react differently. You are very unlikely to get all the side effects listed for any particular drug.

The commonest side effects with chemotherapy are tiredness, feeling or being sick, a drop in blood cells that causes increased risk of infection, diarrhoea, sore mouth, and hair thinning or hair loss. Chemotherapy can cause an early menopause. You may not be able to become pregnant after this type of treatment.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating vulval cancer section.

 

 

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer or cytotoxic drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the cells' growth. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body. You most often have chemotherapy into the bloodstream, through a drip (IV) or by injection. But some drugs are available as tablets. Others come as a cream that you put on the skin.

You have chemotherapy as cycles of treatment, with breaks in between. It is difficult to generalise because there are different timetables for different chemo drugs. But you are most likely to have treatment for one to 5 days, with a break of 2 or 3 weeks between each treatment. This allows your body to recover from the treatment. It also means the drugs catch the cancer cells at different stages of development. Chemo can only kill cancer cells when they are growing and dividing into new cells. Each treatment will kill off cells that were resting last time round.

Read more about how doctors plan chemotherapy

 

Chemotherapy for advanced vulval cancer

Your specialist may suggest chemotherapy to try to control vulval cancer that has spread. Cisplatin is the drug doctors use most often. You may have this on its own or in combination with other chemotherapy drugs.

Cisplatin can cause kidney problems, so before the treatment you will usually have extra fluid through a drip. This helps to flush the cisplatin through your kidneys. For this reason, you may have to have this treatment in hospital. 

Read more about the specific side effects of cisplatin.

 

Chemotherapy with radiotherapy

Your doctor may suggest you have chemotherapy to shrink your cancer before you have surgery. This called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. You may have the chemotherapy on its own, or combined with radiotherapy. This isn’t standard treatment at the moment. 

Your doctor may also suggest chemotherapy with radiotherapy if you are to have radiotherapy as your main treatment. With this treatment, you are really having the chemotherapy because it helps the radiotherapy to work. It is called chemoradiation.

Some drugs are called radio sensitisers. These are drugs that can make cancer cells more at risk from radiation. The drugs you are most likely to have are either 5FU, cisplatin or both. 

You won't have chemotherapy every day when you are having radiotherapy. You will probably have treatments at the beginning of your radiotherapy course and weekly throughout. But there are different treatment plans, and you will have to ask your own specialist about your exact treatment schedule.

Read more about the side effects of 5FU and the side effects of cisplatin.

 

Side effects

Chemotherapy side effects vary. Each drug has a different set of side effects and each person will react differently. Not all drugs cause hair loss, for example.

You are very unlikely to get all the side effects listed for any particular drug. Your reaction will be individual to you and will also depend on the drug dose and on any other chemotherapy drugs you are having at the same time. The commonest side effects with chemotherapy are

These links will take you to information on coping with that particular side effect.

If you have not yet had your menopause, it is important to know that chemotherapy can affect your ovaries. You may not be able to become pregnant after this type of treatment and may have an early menopause. You can have HRT for menopausal symptoms if you've had vulval cancer. 

In our chemotherapy section, we have specific side effect information for many drugs. Ask your doctor or nurse to write down the names of the drugs you will be having. Then you can look down our alphabetical list of chemotherapy drugs to find more information about your own treatment. And you can find out more about chemotherapy and early menopause in the main chemotherapy section

 

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

We don't know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements may interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful. It is very important to let your doctors know if you take any supplements. Or if you are prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment. 

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. If you are taking or thinking of taking these supplements talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

Read more about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements.

 

More information about chemotherapy

For more about chemotherapy look at the chemotherapy section. It explains the treatment in more detail including

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Updated: 24 February 2016