Chemotherapy drugs destroy quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.
Why you have it
Your specialist may suggest chemotherapy to shrink your cancer before you have surgery. This is called neo adjuvant chemotherapy.
Your doctor may also suggest chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). The chemotherapy helps the radiotherapy to work. The drugs you are most likely to have are either cisplatin, 5FU or both.
You might have chemoradiotherapy:
- after surgery for early stage disease with positive lymph nodes
- for vulval cancer that is not suitable for surgery
You won't have chemotherapy every day when you are having radiotherapy. You will probably have treatments at the beginning of your radiotherapy course and weekly throughout. But there are different treatment plans. Your specialist will tell you about your exact plan.
Chemotherapy for advanced cancer
Your specialist may suggest chemotherapy to try to control vulval cancer that has spread. Carboplatin and paclitaxel are the drugs doctors use most often.
Carboplatin can cause kidney problems, so you may have extra fluids through a drip before and after treatment. This helps to flush the carboplatin through your kidneys.
Your chemotherapy nurse will give you information about your treatment before you start.
How you have it
You have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.
You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.
When you have it
You have chemotherapy as cycles of treatment, with breaks in between.
It is difficult to generalise because there are different timetables for different chemotherapy drugs. But you are most likely to have treatment for one to 5 days, with a break of 2 or 3 weeks between each treatment.
This allows your body to recover from the treatment. It also means the drugs catch the cancer cells at different stages of development. Chemotherapy can only kill cancer cells when they are growing and dividing into new cells. Each treatment will kill off cells that were resting last time round.
Where you have chemotherapy
You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.
You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.
For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.
Some hospitals may give certain chemotherapy treatments to you at home. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about this.
Clare Disney (nurse): Hello, my name is Clare and this is a cancer day unit.
So when you arrive and you’ve reported into with the receptionist, one of the nurses will call you through when your treatment is ready, sit you down and go through all the treatment with you.
Morning, Iris. My name is Clare. I am the nurse who is going to be looking after you today. We’re going to start by putting a cannula in the back of your hand and giving you some anti sickness medication. And then I am going to come back to you and talk through the chemotherapy with you and the possible side effects you may experience throughout your treatment. Is that okay?
Before you have each treatment you’ll need to have a blood test to check your bloods are okay. And you’ll also be reviewed by one of the doctors to make sure you’re fit and well for your treatment. Sometimes you’ll have the blood test taken on the day of your treatment; other times you’ll have it the day before your treatment when you see the doctor.
Each chemotherapy is made up for each individual patient, depending on the type of cancer they have and where it is and depending their height, weight and blood results.
So, depending on where your cancer is some people have their chemotherapy drug, their cancer drug by drip, some will have an injection and other people will have tablets.
So, Iris, your chemotherapy is going to be given to you in what we call cycles and the cycles are given every three weeks for a period of six cycles. So, you will be coming in for approximately five months for your chemotherapy.
Depending on where your cancer is and what type of cancer you have will be dependent on how often you come in for treatment. An example of a treatment cycle would be for you to come in on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15 then to have a week’s break before you come back again for Day 1 treatment.
Depending on the type of treatment that you are having we will also give you some anti sickness tablets to take alongside your chemotherapy and also some drugs to prevent any reactions if that’s appropriate.
All chemotherapy is given over different time periods so it’s best to check with your nurse about how long you are likely to be in the unit for. This can range from anything up to an hour to an all day treatment slot so please be prepared to bring along some bits to keep you occupied books and music.
So, before you go home it’s important to make sure you have got the tablets you need to go home with your anti sickness medications and any other symptom control tablets that you may require. Also, to make sure that you’ve got the telephone numbers for the oncology unit to phone if you have a temperature or you are experiencing any other symptoms at home that you need to ask advice about.
So, please make sure when you leave the unit that you’ve got all the information you require and if you’ve got any questions at all don’t hesitate to ask the nurse who will be able to answer them for you.
Before your next cycle of treatment you will come in and see the doctor in the clinic room, you’ll have a blood test and an examination to make sure you are fit and well for treatment you will then come back the following day or later on that week for treatment.
Before you start chemotherapy
You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.
Common chemotherapy side effects include:
- feeling sick
- loss of appetite
- losing weight
- feeling very tired
- a lower resistance to infections
- bleeding and bruising easily
- diarrhoea or constipation
- hair loss
Side effects depend on:
- which drugs you have
- how much of each drug you have
- how you react
Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.
Most side effects only last for a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.
If you have not yet had your menopause, it is important to know that chemotherapy can affect your ovaries. You may not be able to become pregnant after this type of treatment and may have an early menopause. You can have HRT for menopausal symptoms if you've had vulval cancer.
When you go home
Chemotherapy for vulval cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.