Treatments for gynecologic cancer vary depending on how far the cancer has spread throughout the body. In general, there are four main treatment options:
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy employs a combination of drugs to slow the growth of tumors and destroy cancer cells. It is often used along with surgery to treat gynecologic cancer and prevent the disease from recurring. These chemotherapy drugs may be administered either intravenously or by mouth. Chemotherapy has a number of side effects, including fatigue, fever, hair loss, infection, low blood cell count and nausea.
- Hormone therapy: Some gynecologic tumors—for instance, endometrial tumors—have proteins called hormone receptors that attract and bind to estrogen, which they then use as a fuel source to grow. Hormone therapy uses progesterone to try to balance the effect of estrogen and slow the tumor’s growth. Its side effects can include increased appetite, fluid retention, weight gain and, for premenopausal women, menstrual-cycle changes.
- Radiation therapy: This treatment uses high-energy x-rays to shrink tumors and destroy cancer cells. This is often used before or after surgery to destroy cancer cells, or for patients who are unable to go through surgery. There are two main types of radiation therapy: internal and external beam radiation. External beam radiation is usually given five days a week for several weeks, and delivered by a machine outside the body. Individuals undergoing this treatment abstain from sexual intercourse, as the genital and vaginal contact may be painful. Internal beam radiation is given for four to six weeks after surgery. An applicator is used to insert radioactive pellets into the upper vagina. Side effects of radiation therapy include diarrhea; dryness, itching, tightening and burning in the vaginal skin; painful and frequent urination; hair loss; and loss of appetite or changes of taste.
- Surgery: For some gynecologic cancers, doctors may prescribe a total hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus and cervix), as well as a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes). This surgery is either performed through an incision in the abdomen or through the vagina. Side effects of surgery include pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue, and individuals may remain hospitalized for up to a week. Normally, patients can resume normal activities in about four to eight weeks.
Other possible treatments include biological therapies to assist the immune system, vaccine therapy and anti-HER-2, which can reduce the threat of cancer recurrence. In addition, anti-angiogenesis can therapy reduce the amount of blood a tumor receives, and thus kill or diminish it. Patients may also be given drugs to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy.