While radiation therapy is rarely used in frontline ovarian cancer treatment, it can be effective in treating certain subtypes of ovarian cancer as well as cervical, endometrial, and uterine sarcoma, and can also play an important role if the disease spreads.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that aims to eliminate or stop the spread of cancer cells, by using high-energy x-rays or other radiation types. Because in most cases chemotherapy has proven more effective, radiation therapy is not often used to treat ovarian cancer. However, there are circumstances in which radiation can be a useful tool. In cases where cancer spreads to other areas of the body, radiation therapy can help manage the spread.
Radiation therapy for ovarian or other gynecologic cancers can commonly cause pelvic floor dysfunction, leading to difficulties with urination and sexual function. Pelvic floor therapy — exercises to restore strength to the pelvic floor — can help. This video provides pelvic floor exercises for beginners,
External beam radiation therapy
External beam radiation therapy is the type of radiation therapy that is most commonly used to treat ovarian cancer, and is administered by a machine that focuses photon, particle, or electron radiation beams on cancer cells in the affected area. This treatment is painless, and the patient experience is much like getting an x-ray, but with stronger radiation. Setup may take longer than the treatment itself, which is an outpatient procedure that takes just a few minutes. The treatment regimen for external beam ovarian cancer radiation therapy is often 5 days per week for several weeks, but your medical team will help determine the best course of treatment. Learn more about the different types of external radiation therapy.
Common side effects of radiation therapy include skin changes (“sunburn” feelings, or blistering); fatigue; nausea or vomiting; diarrhea; and vaginal irritation or discharge. Most side effects improve after treatment is finished, though side effects involving the skin may improve more gradually, generally clearing up within 6 to 12 months.
If you are receiving radiation therapy for cancer treatment, be sure to speak to your medical team about options for managing side effects.
Brachytherapy is also known as internal radiation, and is rarely used to treat ovarian cancer. Instead of aiming radiation from outside the body, brachytherapy uses a device to deliver radioactive seeds or pellets directly inside the body, as close as possible to the cancer’s location.
When is radiation used for ovarian cancer?
Most commonly, radiation treatment for ovarian cancer is used if the cancer has spread to other organs that are more easily targeted by external radiation. If cancer spreads, radiation therapy can help alleviate symptoms, as well as help stop or slow the cancer cells from spreading further. A radiation therapy regimen will be determined by a radiation oncologist.
As delivery methods are becoming more advanced and precise, researchers continue to investigate whether radiation therapies may one day be a more viable option for effectively treating ovarian cancer.
What happens at radiation treatment visits?
Radiation treatment is an outpatient procedure that takes place at a hospital or treatment center. Before your first treatment visit, your radiation oncologist will examine you, review your past medical history and test results, and coordinate with a radiation therapist on the exact area to be treated, by performing a simulation session, or a “sim.” During the sim, you will lie down on a table while the radiation therapist uses imaging to set the precise location of your radiation treatments, sometimes referred to as a “treatment field” or “treatment port.” The radiation therapist may make marks on your body to display the treatment field. Do not wash away these marks until your treatment regimen has ended.
When preparing for your treatment visit, be sure to wear comfortable, simple clothing, as you may be asked to undress before the procedure.
During your treatment visits, which are led by the radiation therapist and usually last between 15 and 30 minutes, you will be asked to lie down on a treatment table next to the radiation machine, called a linear accelerator. Much like with an x-ray, you may be given heavy, protective shields to act as a barrier between the radiation and parts of your body outside the treatment field. The machine has a long, moveable arm that is controlled by the radiation therapist, to administer radiation to the parts of your body within the treatment field.
It is important to lie very still during treatment, but you can breathe normally. You will have an intercom to communicate with the radiation therapist administering the treatment, so if you begin to feel ill or uncomfortable, you can let them know right away. The treatment can be stopped at any time.
Many people wonder if radiation treatment will make them radioactive, or if they will carry radiation in their bodies after treatment. Radiation affects cells only for a moment, and is not carried in the body. You will not be radioactive during or after treatment, and it is perfectly safe for you to be around other people.