What is vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer that forms in the vagina, the small canal that runs from the uterus to outside the body (also known as the birth canal).
There are two main types of vaginal cancer:
Squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type, forms in the cells lining the vagina. It is found most often in women age 60 or older.
Adenocarcinoma is cancer that begins in the glandular (secretory) cells in the lining of the vagina. It is found most often in women age 30 or younger.
Vaginal cancer can often be cured in its early stages. A Pap test can find abnormal cells that may be cancer.
What causes vaginal cancer?
It is not yet known what causes vaginal cancer. Factors that may increase a woman's risk include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the mother's womb
- Age 50 or older
- A history of abnormal cells in the vagina, a precancerous condition called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
- Multiple sexual partners
- Early age at first intercourse
- HIV infection
What are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?
Often there are no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. If symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Watery vaginal discharge
- A vaginal lump
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during intercourse
- Painful urination
How is vaginal cancer diagnosed?
Diagnosis may include:
- A thorough medical history and physical exam
- Pelvic exam - to check for lumps or anything else unusual
- Pap test - to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina for examination under a microscope, to look for cell changes
- Biopsy - removal of a small piece of vaginal tissue for examination under a microscope, to look for cancerous or precancerous cells
- Colposcopy - uses a special magnification instrument known as a colposcope to view the vagina and check for abnormal areas
If the diagnosis is vaginal cancer, more tests may be run to determine the extent or "stage" of the disease - how far the cancer cells have spread and the best treatment strategy.
These tests may include:
- Biopsies - to test tissue samples from other areas
- Cystoscopy - to determine if the cancer has spread to the bladder
- Proctoscopy - to determine if the cancer has spread to the rectum
- Imaging tests - such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), and PET scans (positron emission tomography)
How is vaginal cancer treated?
Treatment depends on the individual patient and their cancer, but may include one or more of the following:
- Surgery - to remove or destroy the cancerous tissue
- Radiation - uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy - uses drugs typically given intravenously (through a vein) to stop the growth of cancer cells
Can vaginal cancer be prevented?
While there is no proven way to prevent vaginal cancer, it may be possible to reduce your risk through:
- Routine pelvic exams and Pap tests
- HPV vaccination
- Smoking cessation