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Cervical Cancer: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Woman sitting at home reading, with chemo infusion port in chest.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.

When might chemotherapy be used for cervical cancer?

Chemotherapy is often given together with radiation for some stages of cervical cancer. It helps the radiation work better. Chemotherapy may be used on its own to treat cervical cancer that has spread to distant areas or that has come back after treatment.

How is chemotherapy given for cervical cancer?

Chemotherapy 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. This means 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. Chemotherapy kills cells that are dividing quickly, like cancer cells. Cancer cells aren't all dividing at the same time. So giving treatments in cycles allows 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. But some medicines are given in different intervals. Your doctor will review the schedule with you based on the medicines used in your treatment.

You may also receive radiation therapy at the same time as chemotherapy. This is 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

  • Carboplatin

  • Paclitaxel

  • Topotecan

  • Gemcitabine

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)

  • Bleomycin

  • Bevacizumab

What are common side effects of 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 common side effects:

  • Appetite loss

  • Bruising and bleeding easily

  • Change in nerve function (neuropathy)

  • Constipation

  • Damage to the kidneys

  • Diarrhea

  • Fatigue or less energy

  • Hair loss

  • Hearing loss

  • Increased chance of infections

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea

  • Skin changes

  • Vomiting

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.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for, and when to call them. For instance, 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

Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

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 healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.

Online Medical Reviewer: Goodman, Howard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Image reviewed by StayWell art team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2017
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.