About chemotherapy

Doctors don’t often use chemotherapy on its own for vaginal cancer. You are more likely to have chemotherapy in combination with radiotherapy (chemoradiation). 

For some advanced vaginal cancers, your doctor might recommend chemotherapy alone. The aim would be to try to shrink the cancer, slow it down or relieve symptoms.

Types of chemotherapy

Your doctor will decide the exact number of treatments you have and which drugs. You may have one or more of the following drugs:

  • fluorouracil
  • cisplatin
  • caboplatin
  • paclitaxel (taxol)
  • topotecan
  • gemcitabine
  • bleomycin
  • ifosfamide
  • etoposide

You might have cisplatin as a single drug if you have chemoradiotherapy for an early stage cancer.

You might have two or more chemotherapy drugs together if you have advanced vaginal cancer. You usually have treatment once every 3 or 4 weeks with a break afterwards. This makes up a cycle of chemotherapy. Most people have a course of about 6 treatments or cycles. 

How you have chemotherapy

You have most of these drugs as injections into a vein or through a drip (intravenous infusion). You take some as tablets.

Drugs into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

Taking your tablets or capsules

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects for vaginal cancer include:

  • a drop in blood cells causing an increased risk of infection, bleeding problems, tiredness and breathlessness
  • feeling very tired
  • feeling sick
  • sore mouth
Contact the doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 38C or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Other possible side effects include:

  • hair loss or thinning
  • diarrhoea

When you go home

Chemotherapy for vaginal cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

Last reviewed: 
21 May 2018
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