Your doctor may recommend chemotherapy to treat your vulvar cancer. You may have chemotherapy or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy prior to surgery in order to shrink your cancer. Or you may have these treatments after surgery as adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy is done as an "extra protection" against the possible recurrence of your cancer, even though all visible cancer may have been removed surgically.

Chemotherapy is sometimes used in combination with radiation therapy to treat vulvar cancer because it enhances the effectiveness of radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is also sometimes prescribed to treat vulvar cancer that has spread too widely to be treated with surgery or radiation therapy.

"Chemotherapy" means treating cancer with drugs. You will probably receive a combination of two chemotherapy drugs given by infusion into a vein.

The most common combinations for vulvar cancer are:

  • Cisplatin, or Platinol,® plus 5-FU (brand names are Flourouracil,® Adrucil® and Efudex®)
  • Mitomycin C plus 5-FU.

Chemotherapy works by killing fast-growing cells, but the drugs cannot discriminate between cancer cells and other fast-growing cells such as hair follicles. That is one reason for many of the typical side effects of chemotherapy treatment, including hair loss.

Chemotherapy is given on various schedules. If you are receiving chemotherapy in conjunction with radiation therapy, you will probably receive one chemotherapy treatment during the first week of your radiation therapy, and another during the fourth and final week of radiation. Sometimes chemotherapy is given on a weekly basis during radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy is given at the University of Washington Medical Center. You may bring a friend or family member to sit with you during your treatment, which may last several hours.