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Radiation Therapy for Endometrial Cancer

Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy is the use of high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used to treat endometrial cancer after hysterectomy or as the primary therapy, particularly for women who cannot have surgery. The two types of radiation therapy that may be used to treat endometrial cancer are:

  • Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy), in which radioactive materials (radioisotopes) are placed into the vagina, uterus, or other areas where the cancer cells are found.
  • External beam radiation therapy, in which radiation comes from a machine outside the body.

What To Expect After Treatment

In brachytherapy, tiny tubes of radioactive material are inserted into the vagina or the uterus. Ultrasound may be used to guide the placement. The radioactive tubes will be left in place for 2 to 3 days. Brachytherapy may be done in the hospital or on an outpatient basis.

External beam radiation therapy is usually done in an outpatient treatment center. A typical therapy course is radiation treatments 5 days a week for 4 to 6 weeks.

Radiation therapy may cause side effects, including:

  • Fatigue.
  • Dryness, itching, tightening, and burning in the vagina.
  • Red, dry, tender, itchy skin.
  • Moist, weepy skin (later in the treatment).
  • Hair loss in the treated area.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Frequent and uncomfortable urination.
  • Reduced white blood cell count.

For long-term side effects, see the Risks section below.

Radiation therapy may make sexual intercourse uncomfortable. You may have to wait until after treatment is finished to resume sexual intercourse.

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy is usually given after surgery for endometrial cancer. Radiation may be recommended for women who have a high risk for the spread of the cancer. If a woman cannot have surgery, she may receive radiation therapy alone, but cure rates are slightly lower than with surgery.

Radiation therapy may be used at different points of treatment, depending on the stage and grade of the endometrial cancer.

Endometrial cancer may recur. Radiation therapy may be used to control symptoms and increase comfort. Radiation therapy may cure your cancer if the cancer is confined to your vagina and radiation therapy has not been used before.

How Well It Works

Usually radiation therapy for endometrial cancer is given after a woman has surgery (hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy). Radiation therapy is used to treat a woman who has a high risk of having the cancer spread beyond the uterus. Radiation therapy can lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

Radiation therapy may also be used in women who cannot have surgery because of their health. Radiation therapy without surgery helps these women, but it doesn't work as well as radiation and surgery.1

Risks

Having radiation therapy to any part of the pelvis can cause side effects such as bladder irritation. These side effects may stop after treatment is finished.

Other side effects of radiation can include:

  • Bowel obstruction.
  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea.
  • Chronic bladder irritation.
  • Vaginal scarring (vaginal fibrosis).

What To Think About

Internal radiation (vaginal radiation) causes physical changes to the vagina that may cause sexual problems, such as painful intercourse.

Radiation therapy to the pelvis causes permanent sterility. If your cancer is in a very early stage and is low grade (slow-growing) and you want to be able to have children, progestin hormone therapy may be an option rather than a hysterectomy and/or radiation therapy.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

References

Citations

  1. National Cancer Institute (2012). Endometrial Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/endometrial/HealthProfessional.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Ross Berkowitz, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last Revised November 27, 2012

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