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What to Know About Your Treatment Options for Vaginal Cancer

Your treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the results of your lab tests, how close the cancer is to other important organs, such as your bladder or rectum, and the extent of the disease, called the stage. Your doctor may also consider your age and general health when making recommendations about treatment. If childbearing is an issue for you, your cancer care team may consider this, too.

It's natural to want to learn all you can about vaginal cancer and your treatment choices. You probably have many questions and concerns. Your doctor is the best person to answer your questions about your treatment, how successful you can expect it to be, and what the risks and side effects may be.

Treatment for vaginal cancer is either local or systemic. Local treatments, such as surgery or radiation therapy, remove, destroy, or control the cancer cells in one certain area. The goal of systemic treatments is to kill or control cancer cells throughout your whole body. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. These are the three main treatments used for vaginal cancer:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation

  • Chemotherapy

Types and goals of treatment for vaginal cancer

Each type of treatment for vaginal cancer has a different goal. You may have more than one type of treatment. Your doctors will take your individual situation into consideration when making treatment recommendations. Here is a list of the main treatments and their typical goals:

  • Surgery. The goals of surgery are to remove the cancer from your  vagina and to perform a biopsy on the lymph nodes in your groin. This is where vaginal cancer generally spreads. The results of your biopsy will help your doctor see if the cancer is spreading (metastasizing). Your doctor may need to remove other organs or tissue during surgery, depending on the extent of your cancer's spread.

  • Radiation therapy. The goal of this treatment is to kill cancer cells with high-energy radiation. Your doctor may use low-dose chemotherapy, along with radiation therapy, to make your treatment more effective. You may have this treatment after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. However, doctors often use radiation alone to cure vaginal cancers, especially smaller ones.

  • Chemotherapy. This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Doctors do not use chemotherapy as often for vaginal cancer as they do for other types of cancer. The goal of chemotherapy is to shrink the cancer, while also reducing your chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of your body. You may have chemotherapy alone, or along with radiation, to increase the effectiveness of the radiation therapy.

Research is ongoing in the field of vaginal cancer. Researchers are testing new medicines and treatments in clinical trials. Before starting treatment, ask your doctor if there are any clinical trials you should explore.

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