One way to receive radiation for vaginal cancer is from a machine outside your body that emits an invisible beam. This is called external beam radiation therapy. A doctor who specializes in cancer and radiation is called a radiation oncologist. This doctor will work with you to determine the kind of radiation you need. He or she will also determine the dose and how long you need the therapy. If you need radiation combined with chemotherapy, another doctor will give you the chemotherapy.
You can receive external radiation therapy on an outpatient basis in a hospital or a clinic. The standard treatment lasts 5 weeks, 5 days a week. This type of radiation may come from a machine called a linear accelerator. If you also have chemotherapy, you will receive it in a different outpatient area.
Before your first radiation treatment, you will have a session to determine exactly where on your body the radiation beam needs to be directed. The process is called simulation. This session may take up to 2 hours. You’ll lie still on a table while a radiation therapist uses a machine to define your treatment field. The field is the exact area on your body where the radiation will be aimed. You may have more than 1 treatment field if you have cancer in more than 1 place. The therapist marks your skin with tiny dots of colored permanent ink (like tiny tattoos) so that the radiation will be aimed at the exact same place each time. You may also have imaging scans, such as computed tomography (CT scans), to help doctors know the exact location of your tumor to better aim the radiation. Also at this session, you may have body molds made to help keep you from moving during the treatment.
On the days you receive radiation treatment, you’ll lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. You may have to wear a hospital gown. The experience is much like that of getting an X-ray, only longer. It takes about 15 minutes to complete. You should, though, plan on being there for about an hour.
When you are ready, the therapist will leave the room and turn the machine on. You may hear whirring or clicking noises while the radiation is being given. During the session, you will be able to talk to the therapist over an intercom. You can’t feel radiation, so the process will be painless. Also, you will not be radioactive afterward.