This page discusses the use of radiotherapy for the treatment of ovarian cancer. For a thorough review of radiotherapy, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .

Radiation therapy is the use of penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to treat disease. Radiation therapy destroys the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide.

The types of radiation therapy that can be used to treat ovarian cancer include:

External Radiation Therapy

In external radiation therapy, rays are directed at the tumor from outside the body. Radiation is produced by a machine called a linear accelerator. Short bursts of x-rays are fired from the machine at your cancer. The x-rays come out in a square pattern, designed by the radiation oncologist to shape the radiation beam so that it treats the entire cancer, but as little normal tissue as possible.

As with chemotherapy, the side effects from radiation result from injury to normal body tissues. There are many ways that a radiation oncologist can customize your treatment to try to kill as much cancer while sparing as much normal tissue as possible. The radiation oncologist will determine how many treatments you will receive; sometimes they will be once a day and sometimes twice per day. Each treatment generally only takes a few minutes, and the total treatment time can range from five to eight weeks depending on the total dose required.

Radiation therapy can be given to treat cancer at its initial site or once it has spread. In some cases, once cancer has spread, radiation is much less effective. However, the treatments can help resolve problems that the cancer may be causing, including pain and weakness.

Many people believe that once you have received a certain dose of radiation you can no longer get any more treatment. It is true that each tissue in the body can safely tolerate only so much radiation. However, when the therapy is very focused, additional treatments are possible to an already treated area or to an area not yet treated. Ask your radiation oncologist about what dose you can safely receive.

A type of external radiation therapy that may be used to treat ovarian cancer is called whole abdominal radiotherapy (WART). Like chemotherapy, WART is designed to treat all of the tissues in your abdominal area where ovarian cancer cells may be hiding after surgery. In the 1960s and 1970s, WART was commonly offered in the United States, but after a study in the mid-1970s showed that the side effects were worse after WART than after chemotherapy, chemotherapy has become the more popular treatment in the U.S. WART is still used commonly throughout Europe and Canada. Several cancer centers in the U.S. still use WART. Ask your doctor if this treatment is reasonable for you.

Radioactive P-32

In some rare cases, your doctor may ask you to consider a radioactive liquid called phosphorus 32 (P-32). The doctor will instill it into your abdomen and move it around so that it touches all the surfaces of the inside of your abdominal area, where tumor cells could be hiding. This treatment is easy to perform, but it can cause nausea and vomiting, and increases the chances that you could develop bowel complications (adhesions) later on. Scientists are still debating whether radioactive P-32 provides benefits additional benefits to surgery and chemotherapy.

Brachytherapy

Surgically placing radioactive material close to tumors is rarely used in treating ovarian cancer.

When to Contact Your Health Care Provider

Call your health care provider if you:

  • Develop side effects from the treatment
  • Develop new or unusual symptoms
  • Develop red, blistered, or swollen skin

For a thorough review of radiotherapy, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .