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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Vaginal Cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. For this treatment, you will see a gynecologic oncologist, a gynecologist with specialty training in women's cancers or a medical oncologist, an internal medicine doctor with specialty training in the use of drugs to treat a large variety of cancers.

Many women who get chemotherapy for vaginal cancer have it combined with radiation. This is called radiosensitization or chemoradiation. This helps radiation work better. It also reduces the chance that the cancer will spread. It may be used by itself or before or after surgery.

The role of chemotherapy in women whose vaginal cancer has spread and cannot have radiation or surgery is somewhat controversial and large studies to demonstrate broad benefit have not been performed. However, it is often offered and individual patients have clearly benefited from it.

How you take it

Photo of intravenous drug bag

You may take these drugs by an IV (intravenously) into a vein or by a pill. In some cases, when vaginal cancer has not become invasive (it has not spread), chemotherapy drugs may be in a cream or lotion applied to the affected area of your body.

Chemotherapy given by IV or pill is a systemic treatment because the drugs travel all through the body in the bloodstream. Chemotherapy given as a cream or lotion is local treatment. Most women with vaginal cancer get chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home. In some cases, depending on your health or the drugs you take, you may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

You receive chemotherapy in cycles. This means you will be treated for a time with chemotherapy and then you will have a rest period. Each treatment and rest period make up 1 cycle. You’ll likely have more than 1 cycle of treatment. Your doctor will explain what your treatment plan will be and what you can expect. The length of each treatment period differs, depending on the type of drug you take. With many types of chemotherapy, monthly treatments are common. Sometimes you will get chemotherapy more often.

Common drugs used

These are chemotherapy drugs that have been used to treat vaginal cancer:

  • Adrucil or Efudex (fluorouracil, 5-FU)  

  • Platinol (cisplatin)

  • Taxol (paclitaxel)

  • Taxotere (docetaxel) 

If you receive chemotherapy and radiation together, you will likely have low doses of cisplatin or fluorouracil (5-FU), or both, with the radiation.