Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. Typically, cancer begins when a tumor grows on the outer walls of the ovaries. This is called epithelial ovarian cancer, and it is the most common type of ovarian cancer.
Treatment for ovarian cancer generally involves:
- surgery to remove the tumor
- treatments to kill any remaining cancer cells
Radiation therapy is one of the treatment options to kill remaining cancer cells. Although radiation therapy is not as commonly used for ovarian cancer as it is for some other cancer types, it is an option, and it can be especially helpful when cancer has spread beyond the ovaries.
Radiation therapy treats cancer by using X-rays to kill cancer cells. It can be used as part of a cancer treatment plan alongside other treatment options.
Generally, doctors don’t use radiation treatment as an early or primary treatment for ovarian cancer. Doctors may use it to treat cancer that has spread and is in later stages.
External beam radiation is the most common type of radiation used to treat ovarian cancer. Doctors may also use another type called brachytherapy. You can read more about each therapy type below.
External beam radiation
External beam radiation uses strong X-radiation (X-rays) to kill cancer cells. During treatment, a machine focuses radiation on the area of your body impacted by cancer.
The treatment is similar to having an X-ray done, and it’s fast and painless. Each session of external beam radiation is only a few minutes long. You’ll have treatment 5 days a week for several weeks.
Brachytherapy is rarely used for ovarian cancer. This type of radiation is also called internal radiation.
During this treatment, a small device places tiny radiation pellets inside your body. The device places the pellets near the cancer cells, and the radiation from the pellets kills the cancer cells. Brachytherapy pellets are about the size of a grain of rice and will only remain radioactive for a few weeks.
Before your first session, you’ll likely meet with a doctor who specializes in radiation to run a simulation. During this time, a radiation therapist will mark your skin with small dots. The dots are used to make sure you’re always in the same position for your therapy. These are needed for the duration of your therapy.
In each session, you’ll be asked to lie down on a table. The radiation therapist will use the dots on your skin to get you into the right position each time.
The radiation therapist will move to a different room where they’ll control the radiation machine. They can still see you on a TV screen or through a window and can speak with you through a speaker.
You’ll need to stay very still to ensure radiation hits the same spots each time. You won’t be able to feel, see, hear, or smell radiation therapy as it happens.
The process takes only a few minutes, but your visit may last much longer. Most of the time is spent getting you into the right position. Your treatment team may also spend some time taking X-rays while you’re on the table.
Radiation therapy is generally considered safe. However, there are some side effects you should know about.
Side effects usually start about a week after therapy begins and may get worse as treatment progresses.
Side effects include:
- skin redness or irritation
- skin blistering or peeling
- vaginal irritation
- vaginal discharge
It’s a good idea to talk with your medical team if you experience any of these side effects.
Side effects usually start to improve a few weeks after treatment. Changes to your skin may take
Does external beam radiation therapy make me radioactive?
No, external beam radiation therapy does not make you radioactive. Your cells are only affected for a brief moment. It’s safe for you to be around other people after radiation therapy.
Your treatment plan for ovarian cancer will likely consist of several treatments. Your plan will depend on the type of ovarian cancer you have and how far your cancer has progressed. Factors such as your overall health will also be considered.
Generally, treatment will start with surgery to remove the tumor. Following surgery, treatment might include:
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a type of very strong medication that kills cancer cells. You can receive it orally or through an IV. In some cases of ovarian cancer, chemotherapy medication can be placed directly on your tumor during surgery.
- Radiation therapy. This therapy uses high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is generally considered more effective than radiation therapy. It’s unlikely radiation therapy will be used as a primary treatment for ovarian cancer, but it might be used if your cancer has spread.
- Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is a type of medication that teaches your body to look for weaknesses in cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy. This is a treatment that helps your body’s immune system identify and kill cancer cells.
- Hormone therapy. Hormone therapy can help treat some types of ovarian cancer in which cancer cells can use estrogen to help them grow. Hormone therapy blocks the effects of estrogen and slows down the growth of cancer cells.
There are a few known risk factors for ovarian cancer. Having one of these risk factors doesn’t mean you will get ovarian cancer, and people who don’t have any of these risk factors can still develop ovarian cancer. However, having any risk factor increases your chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Risk factors include:
- Age. The risk of ovarian cancer increases after menopause.
- Obesity. Obesity is linked to a higher risk of multiple types of cancer, including ovarian cancer.
Studiesalso show that obesity can negatively impact your survival rate once ovarian cancer has developed.
- Smoking. Smoking has been shown to
increase the riskof some types of ovarian cancer.
- A family history of certain types of cancer. Up to
one-quarterof ovarian cancers are part of a family cancer syndrome. That’s when a gene mutation that runs in a family is associated with developing cancer. Family histories of ovarian, breast, uterine, and colon cancer have been linked to an increased riskof ovarian cancer.
- Some genetic syndromes. Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome causes inherited mutations on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and an
increased lifetime riskof ovarian cancer. Peutz-Jeghers syndromeand MUTYH-associated polyposisare rare conditions that cause polyps to develop in your digestive system and can increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
- A personal history of breast cancer. This is also related to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.
- Using hormone replacement therapy. This is a
relatively small riskcompared with other risk factors.
- Reproductive history. Never having a full-term pregnancy or having your first child at age 35 or later has been linked to
increased riskof ovarian cancer.
Do fertility treatments increase my risk of getting ovarian cancer?
Some studies have shown links between in vitro fertilization (IVF) and an increased risk of some types of noninvasive (noncancerous) ovarian tumors. No link has been found between IVF and invasive or aggressive types of ovarian cancer.
If taking fertility drugs, discuss the risks with your doctor.
Can I continue to work while I have radiation therapy?
Some people work full time during radiation therapy, but your ability to work will depend on many factors. It’s likely you’ll feel well enough to work when therapy first starts, but you might feel weaker as time goes on. Talk with your medical team to find out what you can expect over the course of your treatment.
Will I have to change my diet while I’m getting radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy causes your body to use a lot of energy. You may need to adopt a high-calorie diet to keep your energy up. It’s important to maintain your weight during the course of your therapy. Talk with your medical team about whether you need a special diet.
Can I have sex while in radiation therapy?
Sex might be painful while receiving radiation therapy. Many people experience vaginal irritation as a side effect. If you receive radiation via brachytherapy, you may not be allowed to have sex while the radiation pellets are still active. Talk with your medical team if you have questions about sexual activity during radiation therapy.
Ovarian cancer is very treatable. The exact outlook depends on factors such as the stage at diagnosis, type of cancer, and your overall health. But newer treatments are improving the odds for all types of ovarian cancer.
Today’s treatment plans for ovarian cancer often combine multiple types of treatments, leading to better patient outcomes. Treatment plans may include:
- radiation therapy
According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for epithelial ovarian cancer (the most common kind of ovarian cancer) across all stages is
Most people don’t receive a diagnosis of epithelial ovarian cancer until the cancer has already spread to distant parts of the body. The 5-year survival rate in these cases is only
Your medical team can help you understand your specific outlook and cancer progression.