Radiation Therapy for Advanced Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 22, 2022
4 min read

Radiation therapy may help a select group of people who have ovarian cancer. It’s not used much to treat this cancer, but it can help with related issues like pain.

It’s something your doctor might suggest if you have a certain type of ovarian cancer, your cancer has come back after treatment, or you have cancer cells left behind after surgery or chemotherapy.

Right now, it’s hard to cure ovarian cancer. But radiation therapy may help you feel better for longer if you meet the requirements for it.

Radiation therapy may shrink your tumor or slow your cancer growth in a certain spot of your body. This can help you feel better, even if it doesn’t cure your cancer. This kind of supportive treatment is called palliative care.

Palliative radiation for ovarian cancer may ease your:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Blockages in your bowel or urinary tract
  • Trouble thinking (if you have cancer in your brain)
  • Difficulty breathing (if you have cancer on your airways)
  • Pressure on your spinal cord (if you have cancer on your spine)

Studies show palliative radiation therapy eases symptoms for most people with ovarian cancer. You may see results within a month, and the benefits may last 3 months or longer. Your response to it may differ based on where your cancer is or what your cancer cells are like.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or other kinds of radiation to damage cancer cells so much that they die or stop growing. But it’s rarely used to treat ovarian cancer. It’s more often used to treat its related problems, like pain.

If you’re one of the few to get radiation for your ovarian cancer, you’ll likely be given something called external beam radiation therapy. That’s when a machine pinpoints your cancer and zaps it from the outside. Most radiation therapy uses photon beams. Those are also used in X-rays but at much lower doses.

External radiation therapy uses a computer to create the exact path the radiation beams need to follow. This helps lessen damage to your nearby healthy tissue. Your doctor might use:

  • 3D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT). Your doctor will scan your tumor from a bunch of different angles. This creates a three-dimensional image. A computer program can use this picture like a map to shape radiation beams to fit your cancer.
  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This uses smaller beams than 3D-CRT. It also allows your doctor to aim high-dose radiation only at certain parts of your tumor.
  • Volumetric-modulated arc therapy (VMAT). A procedure that continuously delivers small beams of radiation to your entire tumor. It’s faster than other kinds of radiation therapy.
  • Stereotactic body radiotherapy. This delivers a narrow beam of radiation. It may be a good choice if you can’t have surgery.

In rare cases, you might get brachytherapy. That uses small capsules inside your body that send out radiation for a short time. Your doctor will use a thin needle, wire, or other image-guided tool to place these “seeds” very close to your tumor.

Each radiation therapy session may last 30 minutes to an hour. While the treatment itself only takes a few minutes, it can take some time to get your body in the right position.

To get the best angle, you may need to:

  • Sit in a chair
  • Lie on your back
  • Wrap your arms around your head
  • Wear a body mold to hold still

Generally, you might get radiation therapy once a day, 5 days a week. Treatment usually lasts for several weeks. But some people with advanced ovarian cancer may only get radiation a few times.

Your radiation oncologist -- a doctor who specializes in treating cancer -- will come up with a plan for you. They’ll let you know how often you need to come in and how long your treatment will last. You might hear this called your course of treatment.

Radiation destroys your cancer by breaking down the DNA inside your tumor. It usually takes days or weeks for your cancer cells to die after they’re damaged. But they should keep dying for a while (weeks or months) after you stop treatment.

Radiation therapy is generally considered safe. You won’t be radioactive after it’s over. That means it’s fine to be around pregnant people, babies, or kids.

You shouldn’t feel any pain during radiation therapy. But you may have some uncomfortable symptoms later on. Side effects can differ depending on what part of your body gets radiation. Tell your doctor about anything that bothers you. They’ll help you manage symptoms every step of the way.

While some people don’t have any problems after treatment, common ones include:

  • Skin that feels or looks sunburned
  • Blisters or peeling in the treated area
  • Tiredness
  • A sick feeling in your stomach
  • Throwing up

If you get radiation therapy in your pelvis, you may also get:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Vaginal irritation or discharge
  • Pelvic pain or pain with sex
  • Pain when you pee
  • Yeast infections

Most side effects go away a couple of months after you stop radiation therapy. It may take longer for your skin to heal. And some places on your body may always look darker or be more sensitive to the sun.

You also may have late side effects that show up months or years after you have radiation therapy. They might include tissue damage or trouble getting pregnant (infertility).

Tell your doctor before treatment if you want to have a baby later on. There are extra steps you can take to preserve your fertility.

Scientists continue to find new treatments for advanced ovarian cancer. Ask your doctor about a clinical trial at any point after your diagnosis. You may be able to try a new drug that hasn’t been approved for the general public yet.

You can find more information through the National Cancer Institute. Search the “Find NCI-Supported Clinical Trials” section at cancer.gov.