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Cervical Cancer: Chemotherapy

Photo of intravenous drug bag


Cervical Cancer: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cancer cells that grow quickly. Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can also harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

How is chemotherapy given for cervical cancer?

Chemotherapy medicine is most often given through an IV. It may also be taken by mouth as a pill, or as an injection. The treatment may be done as an outpatient visit to a hospital, and you go home the same day. Or it may be at your doctor’s office, a chemotherapy clinic, or at home. In some cases, you may stay in the hospital during treatment.

You get chemotherapy in cycles over a period of time. That means you may take the medicine for a set amount of time and then you have a rest period. Each period of treatment and rest is one cycle. You may have several cycles. Having treatment in cycles helps by:

  • Killing more cancer cells. The medicine can kill more cancer cells over time, because cells aren't all dividing at the same time. Cycles allow the medicine to fight more cells.

  • Giving your body a rest. Treatment is hard on other cells of the body that divide quickly. This includes cells in the lining of the mouth and stomach. This causes side effects, such as sores and nausea. Between cycles, your body can get a rest from the chemotherapy.

  • Giving your mind a rest. Having chemotherapy can be stressful. Taking breaks between cycles can let you get an emotional break between treatments.

You generally receive chemotherapy every 3 to 4 weeks.

You may also receive radiation therapy at the same time because low-dose chemotherapy may help radiation therapy work better. In this case, you may get the chemotherapy weekly.

What are the types of medicines used to treat cervical cancer?

Chemotherapy for cervical cancer usually involves a combination of medicines injected into an IV. These are some of the medicines most often used:

  • Cisplatin

  • Paclitaxel

  • Topotecan

  • Gemzar

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)

What are the side effects from chemotherapy?

Side effects of chemotherapy for cervical cancer depend on the type and amount of medicines you're taking. They vary from person to person. Here is a list of possible side effects:

  • Appetite loss

  • Bruising and bleeding easily

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Fatigue or less energy

  • Hair loss

  • Increased chance of infections

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Skin changes

Except for hair loss, many of these side effects can be controlled. Tell your doctor or nurse about any changes or side effects that you notice. He or she can suggest things you can do to be more comfortable. Most of these side effects will go away or get better between treatments. You'll stop having side effects after your treatments end. 

Working with your healthcare team

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, ask your healthcare team how they work, and what side effects they might have. Keep a written diary of your treatment schedule and any signs or symptoms you have.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for, and when to call them. Chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections. Your doctor will likely want you to call if you have signs of infection, such as:

  • Burning during urination

  • Fever

  • New cough or shortness of breath

  • Redness, swelling, and warmth at the site of an injury

  • Shaking chills

  • Sore throat

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your medical team to make a plan to manage your side effects.

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