After a diagnosis of cervical cancer
After finding out you have cervical cancer, you may feel shocked, upset, anxious or confused. These are normal responses. Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Seek as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in making decisions about your treatment.
Cervical cancer affects around 850 Australian women every year. It is most commonly diagnosed in women over 30 but can occur at any age. A majority of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). However, the incidence of cervical cancer has decreased significantly in Australia since a national screening program was introduced in the 1990s and a national HPV vaccination program was introduced in 2007.
How is cervical cancer treated?
The type of treatment you have will depend on your test results, the location of the cancer, whether it has spread, your age and your general health and whether you plan to have children in the future.
The most common treatment for cervical cancer is surgery and/or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Surgery is usually recommended for women who have a tumour in the cervix only. How far within the cervix, the cancer has spread will determine the type of surgery you will have. Very early cervical cancers, particularly for young women who would like to have children, are treated with a cone biopsy where a cone of tissue around the cancer is removed.
The main type of surgery is a hysterectomy. This is an operation, under general anaesthetic, to remove the uterus and cervix. Other organs of the reproductive system or the lymph glands on the side wall of the pelvis may also be removed during surgery.
A less common surgery is a trachelectomy which removes part or all of the cervix along with the upper part of the vagina. This may be used in young women with early stage cancer who would like to have children.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. Chemotherapy may be given if the cancer is advanced or has returned after treatment. Sometimes chemotherapy is combined with radiation therapy (chemoradiation). Chemotherapy drugs are usually given through a vein (intravenously. The number of sessions you have will depend on the type of cervical cancer and any other treatments you are having. If you do not have radiation therapy, you are likely to have six chemotherapy sessions scheduled every 3-4 weeks.
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) uses x-rays to kill or damage cancer cells. It targets the parts of the body with cancer or areas cancer cells may have spread to.
You may have radiation therapy as the main treatment for cervical cancer, or you may have it after surgery to get rid of any remaining cancer cells. If the cancer has spread to the tissues or lymph nodes surrounding the cervix, you will usually have radiation therapy in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation).
There are two main ways to have radiation therapy and most women will have both types:
- external beam radiation in which a machine precisely directs radiation from outside the body to the cervix, lymph nodes and other organs that may need treatment
- internal radiation therapy, known as brachytherapy, delivers radiation from inside your body directly to the tumour. It is also a way of reducing the amount of radiation delivered to nearby organs such as the bladder and bowel.
Some women may have targeted therapy if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body or has come back and can’t be treated by radiation therapy or surgery.
What about my physical and emotional wellbeing?
Eating a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods will ensure you have what your body needs to cope with treatment and recovery. Regular exercise can improve your recovery and reduce side effects such as fatigue.
Some tips to help your wellbeing:
- Do not be afraid to ask for professional and emotional support.
- Consider joining a cancer support group.
- Learn to ignore "horror stories" and unwanted advice.
- Live your life day-to-day and remember that every day is likely to be different.
Complementary therapies can work alongside medical treatments and some have been shown to improve quality of life or reduce pain. There is no evidence that these therapies can prevent or cure cancer. Some have not been tested for side effects, may work against other medical treatments and may be expensive. Talk with your doctor about using complementary therapies. If you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor.
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