Having external radiotherapy for vaginal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells.

External radiotherapy uses a machine outside the body to direct radiation beams at cancer to destroy it. It is a common treatment for vaginal cancer.

Where do you have external radiotherapy?

You usually have external radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department as an outpatient. You go to the hospital for treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday, with a break at the weekends. Each treatment takes around 25 minutes.

Some hospitals have rooms near the hospital you can stay in if you have a long way to travel.

You go to the radiotherapy department from your ward if you’re already in the hospital.

When do you have it?

You might have radiotherapy for vaginal cancer:

  • as your main treatment
  • to treat vaginal cancer if you can't have surgery
  • to help stop the cancer coming back after surgery
  • to treat vaginal cancer that couldn't be completely removed with surgery
  • as a combination treatment with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

The length of your course of treatment varies. This depends on the type and size of your cancer and on the aim of the treatment. 

External radiotherapy - intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT)

You usually have a type of external radiotherapy called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). It is a type of conformal radiotherapy. Conformal radiotherapy shapes the radiation beams to closely fit the area of cancer.

This means that the tumour receives a high dose and healthy cells nearby receive a much lower dose.

You may have external radiotherapy first and then internal radiotherapy treatment afterwards.

Having chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

Your doctor might suggest you have chemoradiotherapy. This means having chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment together.

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream. Giving these treatments together can lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

How you have chemoradiotherapy 

You have chemotherapy one day each week for a few weeks and daily radiotherapy Monday to Friday. On the day you have both you usually have the radiotherapy first. You usually have a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin.

There are other ways of having this. Your doctor or nurse will tell you about your treatment and how you have it.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and could make you feel nervous when you see them for the first time. The machine might be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before your first treatment, your therapy radiographers Open a glossary item will explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music while you have treatment.

Photo of a linear accelerator

Before your treatment

Your radiographers will check that you have emptied your bowels. They will let you know when to empty your bladder and start drinking water for your bladder preparation.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.

Your radiographers can see and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.

You won't be radioactive

This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

You might have to travel a long way each day for your radiotherapy. This depends on where your nearest cancer centre is. This can make you very tired, especially if you have side effects from the treatment.

You can ask the therapy radiographers Open a glossary item for an appointment time to suit you. They will do their best, but some departments might be very busy. Some radiotherapy departments are open from 7am till 9pm.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. Ask the radiotherapy staff if you are able to get free parking or discounted parking. They may be able to give you tips on free places to park nearby.

The radiotherapy staff may be able to arrange transport if you have no other way to get to the hospital. Your radiotherapy doctor would have to agree. This is because it is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car. 

Some people are able to claim back a refund for healthcare travel costs. This is based on the type of appointment and whether you claim certain benefits. Ask the radiotherapy staff for more information about this.

Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.

Side effects

Radiotherapy for vaginal cancer can cause loose poo (diarrhoea), sickness, and tiredness. Side effects usually go away within a few weeks of finishing treatment. 

Last reviewed: 
05 Apr 2022
Next review due: 
05 Apr 2025
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