Chemotherapy for vaginal cancer

Last medical review:

Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. These drugs target rapidly dividing cells throughout the whole body. This means that chemotherapy destroys cancer cells but it can also damage healthy cells.

With most types of chemotherapy, the drugs travel through the blood to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including cells that may have broken away from the primary tumour. This is called systemic therapy.

Chemotherapy is sometimes used to treat vaginal cancer. If you have chemotherapy, your healthcare team will use what they know about the cancer and about your health to plan the drugs, doses and schedules.

Chemotherapy may be the only treatment you have or it may be used along with other cancer treatments. You may have chemotherapy to:

  • shrink a tumour before surgery (called neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
  • treat vaginal cancer that has come back
  • treat vaginal cancer when surgery or radiation therapy can't be used
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced vaginal cancer (called palliative chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy is often given during the same time period to treat vaginal cancer. This is called chemoradiation. Some chemotherapy drugs can help make radiation work better by making cancer cells more sensitive to radiation. Combining chemotherapy and radiation therapy can make radiation therapy more effective than using it alone.

Chemotherapy drugs used for vaginal cancer

The most common chemotherapy drugs for vaginal cancer include:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • 5-fluorouracil (also called 5-FU or fluorouracil)
  • docetaxel
  • irinotecan
  • paclitaxel

Side effects of chemotherapy

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the drug, the dose, how it's given and your overall health. Tell your healthcare team if you have side effects that you think are from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Common side effects of chemotherapy drugs for vaginal cancer include:

Find out more about chemotherapy

Find out more about chemotherapy and the side effects of chemotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about chemotherapy.

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Expert review and references

  • Tien Le , MD, FRCSC, DABOG
  • Jhingran A . Updates in the treatment of vaginal cancer. International Journal of Gynecological Cancer. BMJ; 2022: 32:344-351.
  • Jewell EL. Vaginal Cancer Treatment Protocols . eMedicine/Medscape; 2021:
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Vaginal Cancer Treatment Overview(PDQ®)–Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2022:
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Vaginal Cancer Treatment Overview (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version . Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2022:
  • American Cancer Society. Treating Vaginal Cancer . 2018:
  • British Columbia Cancer Agency. Vaginal Cancer. 2021:
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) . Vaginal Cancer. 2021:

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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