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About chemotherapy for cervical cancer

Women discussing cervical cancer

This page is about chemotherapy for cancer of the neck of the womb (the cervix). You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Cervical cancer chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer or cytotoxic drugs to destroy cancer cells. You may have it as part of your treatment when you are first diagnosed, or for cancer that has come back. Chemotherapy can shrink advanced cervical cancer and may help to relieve symptoms. Giving chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy is now thought to be the best choice of treatment for certain stages of cervical cancer. This is called chemoradiation.

How you have chemotherapy

Most chemotherapy drugs are injections, although some are available as tablets. Generally, a course of chemotherapy takes a few days every 3 or 4 weeks. You have 3 or 4 weeks rest after each treatment, then another few days of chemotherapy injections. This is usually repeated six or more times. If you are having chemoradiation, you usually have treatment once a week for about 5 weeks while you are having your course of radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy has side effects. Which ones you get depends on which drug and dose you have, and your individual reaction. The most common side effects are feeling sick, diarrhoea, hair loss or thinning, a sore mouth or mouth ulcers, and feeling tired. You may also have a drop in the number of blood cells. Some side effects may be more severe if you have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.
 

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

 

 

When and why you have chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer or cytotoxic drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the growth of cancer cells. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body. Your doctor may suggest chemotherapy

  • As part of your treatment when you are first diagnosed
  • For cancer that has come back
  • Before surgery as part of a clinical trial

Trials in the past few years have found that giving chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy is the best choice of treatment for certain stages of cervical cancer. Your doctor may call this chemoradiation or concurrent chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This is now the most likely treatment if you have anything from a stage 1B2 cancer to a stage 4A cancer. We have more information about chemoradiation and its side effects in this section.

Chemotherapy can shrink advanced cervical cancer. Your doctor may suggest it to help relieve any symptoms that advanced cervical cancer is causing. You may have chemotherapy on its own or alongside radiotherapy or surgery. There is more about this in our section on treating advanced cervical cancer.

Sometimes, doctors try to use chemotherapy before surgery or radiotherapy to shrink a cancer. If it works, this can mean that you need a smaller operation or radiotherapy treatment to a smaller area. Doctors call this type of treatment neoadjuvant therapy. But it remains experimental for cervical cancer. If your doctor suggests this treatment approach, it should only be as part of a clinical trial.

Don't be afraid to ask your doctor about the different treatment options available to you. Answering your questions is part of your doctor's job. It is very important that you feel confident in the treatment your doctor suggests for the stage of cervical cancer you have. There is a list of questions for your doctor that you may find useful at the end of this section.

 

How you have chemotherapy

Most chemotherapy drugs are injections, although some are available as tablets. How often you have the drug depends on which one you are having and on whether you are having a single drug or several.

Generally, a course of chemotherapy takes a few days every 3 or 4 weeks. The drugs are injected into one of your veins. So they can circulate through your bloodstream. You have about 3 or 4 weeks rest after each round of treatment. Then another few days of chemotherapy injections. This is usually repeated six or more times to make up a complete course.

If you are having chemoradiation, you usually have chemotherapy once a week for about 5 weeks while you are having your course of radiotherapy. Because you are having weekly chemotherapy, rather than 3 weekly, you have a slightly lower dose.

 

Which drugs are used

If you are having chemoradiation, you are most likely to have a drug called cisplatin. For advanced cervical cancer, clinical trials are still going on to find which other drugs and combinations of drugs may help. Drugs that have been tested include

A commonly used combination of drugs is carboplatin and paclitaxel. The links above take you to another page with information on the specific side effects of each drug. Just click your back button at the top left of your screen to get back to this page. 

In the UK, the organisations that approve treatments for the NHS have recommended a combination of cisplatin and topotecan as a treatment option for women whose cancer has come back after radiotherapy, or who have stage 4B cervical cancer, but only if they have not been treated with cisplatin before.

 

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy has side effects. The effects you get will depend on

  • Which drugs you have
  • How much of each drug you are given
  • How you individually react

Not everyone gets every side effect with every drug. Some people react more than others. And different drugs have different side effects. So we can't tell you exactly what will happen to you. Most side effects only last for the few days that you are actually having the drugs. And there is quite a bit that can be done to help. Here is a list of some common side effects

  • A drop in the number of blood cells
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Sore mouth and mouth ulcers
  • Feeling tired and run down

There is more about these side effects and how to deal with them in our section about chemotherapy.

Ask your doctor or nurse which of these side effects are most common with the chemotherapy drugs you will be having. Tell them about any side effects you have straight away so that they can help you as much as possible. 

Chemotherapy courses can seem to go on forever, particularly if you are getting very tired towards the end of your course. But they do finish. And the side effects will go once your treatment has ended.

 

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

We don't yet 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. We have information about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements in our complementary therapies section.

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.

 

More general information about chemotherapy

For more information about chemotherapy look at our main chemotherapy section.

It explains the treatment in more detail including

If you would like more information about anything to do with chemotherapy, contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help. Or you can contact one of the cervical cancer information organisations. They often have free factsheets and booklets which they can send to you.

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Updated: 2 June 2014