Understanding Radiation for Gynecologic Cancers

Gynecologic cancers encompass a range of malignancies affecting the reproductive organs in women. When it comes to treatment, radiation therapy plays a significant role in endometrial cancer, the most common type, cervical cancer, and vulvar cancers. Two key types of radiation therapy—external beam radiation and brachytherapy—offer distinct approaches to curative treatment. Both types of radiation are painless- meaning you cannot feel the radiation treatment itself.

External Beam Radiation: A Broad Approach

Definition: External beam radiation delivers high-energy rays from an external source, like a flashlight, directed to the targeted area. It’s often used to treat a larger area, where microscopic cancer cells may be present, and often is used to help start to shrink the primary tumor, sometimes together with chemotherapy.

How it Works: During external beam radiation, a machine (linear accelerator) directs beams of radiation precisely at the target area. These beams reach the tumor from outside the body.

Usage in Gynecologic Cancer: External beam radiation is commonly used to treat gynecologic cancers that are larger or involve a widespread area, such as cervical, vulvar, or uterine cancer. It’s effective for targeting cancer cells within the pelvis and surrounding regions containing lymph nodes.

Brachytherapy: A Focused Approach

Definition: Brachytherapy, also known as internal radiation, involves placing a radiation source directly inside or very close to the tumor. “Brachy” comes from the Greek word for “short”. By definition, the radiation will only travel a few millimeters away from the source, and can deliver radiation from inside-to-outside. It’s used to deliver a high dose of radiation to a specific area while minimizing exposure to surrounding healthy tissue.

How it Works: In brachytherapy, a radioactive source is placed or inserted using various methods, such as intracavitary (inside a body cavity) or interstitial (directly into tissue) placement. This allows for a concentrated dose of radiation precisely where it’s needed.

Usage in Gynecologic Cancer: Brachytherapy is particularly effective for treating gynecologic cancers located in or near body cavities, such as cervical, vaginal, and endometrial cancers. It provides targeted radiation to the tumor site while sparing surrounding tissues.

Curative Treatment: A Collaborative Effort

Both external beam radiation and brachytherapy are crucial components of curative treatment for gynecologic cancers. Often, these methods are used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or each other, depending on the stage and type of cancer.

Advantages of Combined Treatment:

  • Precision: The combination of external beam radiation and brachytherapy offers precise treatment, maximizing the chances of eliminating cancer cells.
  • Comprehensive Approach: Using multiple treatment options and techniques helps kill cancer cells with various advantages.
  • Personalized Care: Treatment plans are tailored to individual patients, ensuring the most effective approach for their specific case.

Both external beam and brachytherapy radiation play unique and vital roles in curative treatment for gynecologic cancers, working together to increase the chances of successful outcomes. If you’re facing gynecologic cancer, discussing these options with your healthcare team will help you make informed decisions and navigate your path toward healing with confidence.