Vaginal cancer is cancer of the vagina, a female reproductive organ.
Vaginal cancer; Cancer - vagina; Tumor - vaginal
Most vaginal cancers occur when another cancer, such as cervical or endometrial cancer, spreads. This is called secondary vaginal cancer.
Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. This type of cancer is rare. Most primary vaginal cancers start in skin-like cells called squamous cells. This cancer is known as squamous cell carcinoma. The other types include:
The cause of squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina is unknown. But a history of cervical cancer is common in women with squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina. So it may be associated with human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.
Most women with squamous cell cancer of the vagina are over 50.
Adenocarcinoma of the vagina usually affects younger women. The average age at which this cancer is diagnosed is 19. Women whose mothers took the medicine diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages during the first 3 months of pregnancy are more likely to develop vaginal adenocarcinoma.
Sarcoma of the vagina is a rare cancer that mainly occurs in infancy and early childhood.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer can include any of the following:
- Bleeding after having sex
- Painless vaginal bleeding and discharge not due to normal period
- Pain in the pelvis or vagina
Some women have no symptoms.
Exams and Tests
In women with no symptoms, the cancer may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear.
Other tests to diagnose vaginal cancer include:
Other tests that may be done to check if the cancer has spread include:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan and MRI of the abdomen and pelvis
- PET scan
Other tests that may be done to know the stage of the vaginal cancer include:
- Barium enema
- Intravenous urography (x-ray of kidney, ureters and bladder using contrast material)
Treatment of vaginal cancer depends on the type of cancer and how far the disease has spread.
Surgery is sometimes used to remove the cancer if it is small and located at the upper part of the vagina. But most women are treated with radiation. If the tumor is cervical cancer that has spread to the vagina, radiation and chemotherapy are both given.
Sarcoma may be treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.
Outlook for women with vaginal cancer depends on the stage of disease and the specific type of tumor.
Vaginal cancer may spread to other areas of the body. Complications can occur from radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
- You notice bleeding after sex
- You have persistent vaginal bleeding or discharge
There are no definite ways to prevent this cancer.
The HPV vaccine is approved to help prevent cervical cancer. This vaccine may also decrease the risk of getting some other HPV-associated cancers, such as vaginal cancer. You can increase your chance of early detection by getting regular pelvic examinations and Pap smears.
Bodurka DC, Frumovitz M. Malignant diseases of the vagina: intraepithelial neoplasia, carcinoma, sarcoma. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 31.
Jhingran A, Russell AH, Seiden MV, et al. Cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 84.
National Cancer Institute. PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Vaginal cancer treatment (PDQ): Health Professional Version. PDQ Cancer Information Summaries [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): 2002-2020 Aug 7. PMID: 26389242 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26389242/.