Complications of Cervical Cancer Treatment: What to Expect

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More than 13,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Unlike most cancers, which are diagnosed in older adults, cervical cancer is often diagnosed in women ages 35 to 44. While regular screening has reduced the incidence of death from cervical cancer in the U.S., complications can still be challenging. Read on to learn more about potential complications of treatment and how to manage them.


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Cervical cancer treatment basics

Cervical cancer is treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted therapy, depending upon the stage at diagnosis, according to the NCI. Early stage disease is generally treated with surgery. Locally advanced cervical cancer is treated with radiation therapy, often in conjunction with chemotherapy. For cancer that has spread to other organs (metastasized), the treatment is typically chemotherapy or targeted therapy.


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Why cervical cancer treatment may cause complications

All cancer treatments have the potential to cause complications. Furthermore, the cervix is located close to many other organs, such as the bladder and vagina, which may be harmed during surgery or radiation therapy. Some complications are short-lived and resolve once treatment ends. Others persist or occur years later. Your oncologist will recommend the best available treatment for your cancer while minimizing the risk of long-term complications.


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Urinary complications

Radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy tissue in your urinary tract organs. This may cause urinary complications, including bladder irritation, incontinence, and a frequent need to urinate. You may also develop urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can be serious and require immediate treatment with antibiotics. Drinking plenty of fluids is one thing you can do to help prevent urinary problems.


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Gastrointestinal complications

Nausea and diarrhea are common gastrointestinal (GI) side effects from radiation and chemo. You may also experience these long after treatment ends. High doses of external beam radiation therapy have the potential to cause fecal incontinence (loss of bowel control) or intestinal inflammation (radiation enteritis), according to a 2011 article in The British Journal of Cancer. Your doctor can give you medicines to alleviate GI symptoms. Diet modifications and drinking clear liquids can also help.


Gynecological complications

Treatment for cervical cancer can damage the vulva and vagina, potentially causing pain, vaginal dryness, or scarring of the vaginal wall (stenosis), which can lead to pain or discomfort during sex, according to the British Journal of Cancer article. Some women find a dilator helps stretch the vaginal wall to keep it flexible. Additionally, cervical cancer treatment may put you into early menopause. Hormone therapy can relieve menopausal symptoms and estrogen may also help with vaginal dryness.


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Bone complications

Radiation therapy can weaken bones by damaging cells that form bone (osteoblasts) and blood vessels that nourish bones, increasing your risk of a fracture. In fact, you can suffer a pelvic fracture from normal, everyday stress in bones weakened from radiation. This is especially a concern in older women. Tell your doctor if you experience pelvic pain so they can rule out a fracture. Your doctor may also recommend bone density screening to check for weak bones.


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Other complications after cervical cancer treatment


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How common are complications after cervical cancer treatment?

The incidence of complications following cervical cancer treatment varies. For example, estimates of GI complications range from 5 to 30 percent, and the severity can vary widely. Patient factors — for example, whether you have diabetes or smoke — as well as the type of treatment you receive play a role in whether you’re at higher risk for complications, according to the British Journal of Cancer article.


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How to prevent and manage complications of cervical cancer

Talk to your oncologist about any potential complications you may experience before you begin treatment for cervical cancer. Speak up if you experience any symptoms during or after treatment — even if it’s years later. Managing complications is part of your long-term, post-treatment follow up, according to the NCI.