Whether you were diagnosed with cervical cancer following routine screening or after experiencing symptoms, deciding what to do next can feel overwhelming. The right treatment for you may depend on a variety of factors, including the type and stage of your cervical cancer, any potential side effects, and your personal preferences. While there’s a lot to consider, your cancer care team will help guide you through the process so you can make informed decisions about your health together.
Here’s what you need to know as you begin the treatment process:
Who Will Treat My Cervical Cancer?
While your cervical cancer may have been diagnosed by your primary care physician or gynecologist, a team of cancer care experts trained to treat gynecologic cancers will help you through the treatment process. This may include:
- A gynecologic oncologist: This physician specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system. Your gynecologic oncologist may perform surgery to treat your cancer but can also prescribe chemotherapy or other medicines.
- A radiation oncologist: Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to eliminate cancer cells. If this is a part of your treatment plan, you will see a physician who specializes in treating cancer with radiation therapy.
- A medical oncologist: These physicians treat cancer with medicine, like chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, or immunotherapy.
How is Cervical Cancer Treated?
Treatment for cervical cancer can vary depending on the stage of your cancer and where in your body the cancer is located. Common options for cervical cancer treatment include:
- Conization: Your surgeon will use a scalpel to remove a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. This may be used to diagnose cervical cancer but can also be used to remove cervical cancer that can only be seen with a microscope.
- Hysterectomy: If you have been diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, a hysterectomy may be recommended. A simple hysterectomy removes the uterus, while a radical hysterectomy also removes the tissues next to the uterus, the cervix, and the upper area of the vagina next to the cervix. Your surgeon may also perform a modified radical hysterectomy, which removes less of the vagina and tissues next to the uterus.
- Trachelectomy: This surgery removes the cervix and upper part of the vagina without removing the body of the uterus. Nearby lymph nodes are also removed. Some women can carry a pregnancy to term after this surgery.
- Bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy: This surgery removes the ovaries and the fallopian tubes if the cancer has spread to those areas.
- Exenteration: This surgery may be used to treat recurrent cervical cancer. This procedure removes the uterus, vagina, lower colon, rectum, or bladder if the cancer has spread to those areas following radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy treats cancer by using high energy rays to target and eliminate cancer cells. Your physician may recommend radiation therapy as part of the main treatment for your cervical cancer. Depending on the stage of your cancer, radiation therapy may be used alone, after surgery, or concurrently with chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may also be used if your cervical cancer returns after treatment or spreads to other parts of the body.
There are two main types of radiation therapy:
- External radiation therapy uses a machine to deliver radiation to the area of the body affected by cancer.
- Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, places sealed radioactive substances directly into or near the cancer.
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs that travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells wherever they are in the body. While chemotherapy is not always used to treat cervical cancer, it may be used in combination with radiation therapy to help the radiation work more effectively. Chemotherapy can also be used to treat cancer that has spread to other parts of the body or for cancer that has come back after treatment.
Targeted therapy uses medicine to target cancer cells and stop or slow their growth. These medicines target the proteins that cause cervical cancer cells to grow and spread. Targeted drugs for cervical cancer are often used alongside chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy uses medicine to boost your immune system so it can recognize and target cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used to treat cervical cancer that has spread or come back after chemotherapy. It may also be used with chemotherapy and targeted therapy drugs.
What Questions Should I Ask My Cervical Cancer Care Team?
When you meet with your cancer care team, ask any questions you feel will better help you understand your situation and your options. Writing down your questions before your appointment and bringing something to take notes with may be helpful.
Here are a few questions that may help you gain a better understanding of your options:
- If I have been diagnosed with a pre-cancerous cervical condition, what does that mean? What are the chances of this condition developing into cervical cancer, and what steps can we take to prevent that?
- What is the stage of my cervical cancer, and what does that mean for my treatment options?
- What are the risks and side effects of my treatment options? Are these side effects treatable?
- Will treatment affect my ability to become pregnant in the future?
- How long will treatment last, and how will it affect my daily activities?
- Is the goal of this treatment to eliminate my cancer, manage symptoms, or both?
- If my cancer is eliminated, what is the chance of recurrence? If my cancer does return, what would our next steps be?