If you were diagnosed with cervical cancer, just know that it’s usually very treatable -- especially if your doctor caught it early. If so, there are several options to treat it, relieve your symptoms, and help you live longer.
First, your doctor will have to determine if the cancer’s stage, meaning its size, whether it’s spread, and to whether it’s in other parts of your body. She will choose a treatment that's most likely to shrink the cancer based on the stage and what type of cervical cancer it is.
She will also consider your age and whether you want children.
Cervical cancer treatments include:
Take time to review all your options. Make sure you understand how each treatment works. If you're not sure about something, ask questions. You can also get a second opinion from another doctor.
Surgery is the main treatment for early-stage cervical cancers. Sometimes you'll get chemotherapy or radiation to shrink the tumor before surgery, or to kill cancer cells that remain afterward. The type of surgery you have depends on how large the cancer has grown.
Some types of cervical cancer surgery can affect your ability to have children. Talk to your doctor about the risks before you decide on a procedure.
Conization. This surgery can treat very small cervical cancers that haven't spread. Your surgeon removes a cone-shaped area of abnormal cells from your cervix. Conization is performed with a knife, laser, or a thin, heated wire loop. After conization, you should still be able to have children.
Hysterectomy. This surgery removes your uterus and cervix. It is the main treatment for small cancers that haven't spread outside your cervix.
This procedure can be done through your:
- Belly (abdominal hysterectomy)
- Belly through very small holes (laparoscopic hysterectomy)
- Vagina (vaginal hysterectomy)
During the procedure, you surgeon might also remove your fallopian tubes and ovaries, as well as the lymph nodes in your pelvis to see if the cancer has spread.
You’ll have to stay in the hospital for 1 to 5 days after a hysterectomy. Recovery time is faster for laparoscopic surgery than abdominal surgery.
You won’t be able to bear children after a hysterectomy. If you still want children, talk to your doctor about options such as freezing your eggs or embryos.
Modified radical hysterectomy. This surgery is usually for early stage cervical cancer that haven't spread outside the cervix. During a radical hysterectomy, your doctor removes the uterus and cervix, along with tissue next to the uterus, and the top part of the vagina next to the cervix.
The surgery is usually done with one large cut in the abdomen, or is laparoscopic-assisted through the vagina.
Your hospital stay after a radical hysterectomy is usually between 5 and 7 days. You could have trouble going to the bathroom after surgery, and you might need a tube called a catheter to urinate. This problem will go away in time.
Trachelectomy. This procedure, also known as a cervicectomy, is an option if you still want to have children. It removes the cervix and top of the vagina, but leaves most of the uterus. If you get pregnant you'll have to deliver by C-section.
Pelvic exenteration. This surgery is used when cervical cancer comes back and spreads outside the cervix. Your surgeon will remove your cervix, uterus, and nearby lymph nodes. Other organs, like the bladder, vagina, rectum, and part of the colon might also be removed, depending on where your cancer has spread. If you have your bladder or rectum removed, the surgeon will create new pathways to remove urine and waste from your body.
Radiation uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and stop their growth. You might get radiation before or after surgery, or if your cancer has spread beyond your cervix.
You can get radiation treatments in two ways.
Brachytherapy. You get radiation through a small device placed inside your body, near your cervix. This is done for early-stage cervical cancer. It can be given in the hospital or sometimes at home.
External beam radiation therapy. EBRT is often combined with brachytherapy to keep advanced cervical cancer from coming back. The radiation is given from a machine outside your body in short bursts once a day, 5 days a week, for 5 to 6 weeks.
Side effects of radiation include:
These side effects should go away once you finish treatment.
In “chemo,” drugs are used to kill or slow the growth of cervical cancer cells. You'll usually get chemo through an IV.
For cervical cancer, doctors often give chemo with radiation, called chemoradiotherapy. Adding chemo makes the radiation work better. You might also get chemotherapy if your cancer has spread.
The side effects from chemotherapy depend on which drugs you take, but can include:
- Changes in your periods
- Hair loss
- Increased risk for infection
- Loss of appetite
- Mouth sores
- Nausea and vomiting
Getting both radiation and chemo can increase the number of side effects you have. Many of these will go away once you stop treatment. Some can last for a long time, or even permanently. Ask your doctor for ways to relieve your side effects.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that kill cancer cells but spare healthy cells. For example, bevacizumab (Avastin) is a drug that targets the proteins that help new blood vessels form. This can slow slow down tumor growth in advanced cervical cancer, because tumors need new blood vessels for nourishment. Doctors often use targeted therapy with chemotherapy.
If you've tried a few treatments and they didn't work, or the cancer has spread, ask your doctor about a clinical trial. These test new treatments to see if they’re safe and if they work. They’re often ways for people to try new medicines or therapies that aren’t available to everyone. Your doctor can tell you if one of these trials might be a good fit for you.