Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication.
Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally). A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.
Cervical cancer is often treated along with radiation therapy. The goal of chemotherapy when given with radiation therapy is to increase the effectiveness of the radiation treatment. It can also be given to destroy cancer that is remaining after surgery, also called adjuvant therapy, or treat cervical cancer it has come back.
Although chemotherapy can be given orally (by mouth), most drugs used to treat cervical cancer are given intravenously (IV). IV chemotherapy is either injected directly into a vein or through a thin tube called a catheter, which is a tube temporarily put into a large vein to make injections easier.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the woman and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a woman’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with her physical, emotional, and social needs.
Palliative care can help a woman at any stage of illness. Women often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.
Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy alone or surgery is generally used for a small tumor. These treatments have been shown to be equally effective at treating early stage cervical cancer. Chemoradiation (a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy) is generally used for women with a larger tumor. Commonly, radiation and chemotherapy are used after surgery when the patient is at a high risk for the cancer coming back or if the cancer has spread.
If cancer has spread to another location in the body, it is called metastatic cancer. Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about seeking a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials.
Chemotherapy and surgery may be used to treat or remove newly affected areas both within the pelvic area and in other parts of the body. Supportive care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects, such as palliative treatment with radiation therapy to relieve pain and other symptoms.
A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many survivors feeling worried or anxious that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return.