What Is It?
Vaginal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the vagina, also called the birth canal.
Vaginal cancer is rare, accounting for only about 3 percent of cancers affecting the female reproductive system. There are two main types:
- In squamous-cell carcinoma, cancer cells grow from the surface layer of the vagina’s lining. Squamous-cell carcinomas usually develop slowly. They commonly develop in the upper part of the vagina near the cervix. According to the National Cancer Institute, this type of vaginal cancer usually occurs in women between aged 50 and 70. According to the American Cancer Society, squamous-cell carcinomas account for 85 percent to 90 percent of vaginal cancers.
- In adenocarcinomas, cancer cells arise from glands within the vaginal wall. According to the American Cancer Society, this type usually occurs over the age of 50. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of vaginal cancers are adenocarcinomas.
Daughters of mothers who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have an increased risk of developing a rare form of vaginal cancer called clear-cell adenocarcinoma. DES, which was introduced in the 1940s to help prevent miscarriages, was banned from use in the United States in 1971.
Other, less common types of vaginal cancer include malignant melanomas and sarcomas. Melanoma tends to affect the lower or outer part of the vagina and sarcomas develop deep in the vaginal wall.
The symptoms of vaginal cancer can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, often after intercourse, that is not related to your period
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- A mass that can be felt
- Pain during intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic region
- Painful urination and constipation
Keep in mind that these symptoms more commonly occur in a number of less dangerous conditions, such as infections of the reproductive organs. These symptoms should always be evaluated by a health-care provider.
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, your symptoms and any risk factors you might have for vaginal cancer. He or she will perform an internal pelvic exam and Pap smear. During a Pap smear, a small wooden or plastic stick is used to brush cells from the vagina and cervix. These cells are examined for abnormalities. If the exam or Pap smear shows any abnormalities, additional tests may include:
- Colposcopy — In this procedure, an instrument with a magnifying lens is used to view the walls of the vagina and the cervix.
- Biopsy — If a suspicious area is found, a small sample of tissue will be taken to examine for cancerous cells.
If cancer is diagnosed, more tests are performed to determine how far the cancer has spread. These may include:
- Imaging tests, such as intravenous pyelogram to get views of the kidneys and bladder, barium enema to X-ray the colon, Computed tomography (CT) scan, and bone or chest X-rays
- Endoscopic tests, such as cystoscopy to view the inside of the bladder or proctosigmoidoscopy to view the rectum and part of the colon
These are the stages of vaginal cancer:
- Stage 0 — This is a very early stage. Cancer appears on the surface layer of the vagina.
- Stage I — Cancer is confined to the vagina but penetrates beyond the surface layer.
- Stage II — Cancer spreads to the connective tissue just beyond the vagina, but not to the pelvic wall or other organs.
- Stage III — Cancer spreads to the bones of the pelvis and/or other organs and lymph nodes in the pelvis on the same side as the tumor.
- Stage IVA — Cancer spreads to the rectum and bladder. As in Stage III, the lymph nodes also may be involved but on both sides of the body.
- Stage IVB — Cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lungs.
- Recurrent — The cancer returns after being treated. It can recur in the vagina or other parts of the body.
Unless treated, vaginal cancer continues to grow and spread.
To lower your risk of developing vaginal cancer, consider the following guidelines.
- Avoid human papilloma virus (HPV) infection — HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts. Certain types of HPV are associated with cervical cancer. If the vagina or cervix becomes infected with HPV, cells can grow abnormally, increasing the possibility of developing squamous-cell cancer. The risk of HPV infection increases if you begin having intercourse at an early age or if you have unprotected sex at any age, many sexual partners, or sex with a person who has had many partners. To avoid HPV infection, always use condoms and limit the number of your sexual partners. Condoms cannot always prevent HPV infection but they are important to lower the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Get regular Pap tests. — Many vaginal squamous-cell cancers develop from changes in the surface of the vagina that can be detected by a Pap test and treated before full cancer develops. In general, doctors recommend that a woman start to have regular Pap tests by the time she becomes sexually active or by the age of 21 at the latest. After three negative Pap tests (at least one year apart), your doctor may perform the test every two to three years, depending on your age and your risk of developing cervical cancer. All women older than 40 should continue to have an annual pelvic examination.
- Do not smoke, or quit smoking — Women with vaginal cancer also are at increased risk of developing lung cancer. Since lung cancer is related primarily to tobacco use, this finding suggests a possible link between smoking and vaginal cancer.
The choice of treatment depends upon the type of cancer and its stage at the time of diagnosis. Treatment planning also takes into account a woman’s age, overall health, fertility and personal considerations.
The two major treatments for vaginal cancer are radiation therapy and surgery. chemotherapy has not proven to be very successful for this type of cancer. It is only being used with or without radiation for very advanced cancers, and then usually in a clinical trial.
Various types of radiation therapy may be used, including external-beam radiation, internal radiation or a combination of the two. External-beam radiation involves carefully targeting a beam of radiation at the cancer from a machine outside of the body. In internal radiation therapy, called brachytherapy, radioactive materials are placed inside the vagina. While external-beam radiation can harm nearby healthy tissues, brachytherapy can cause greater local side effects and scarring of the vaginal tissue.
In low-dose brachytherapy, radioactive material inside a cylindrical container is placed in the vagina for one to two days. In interstitial therapy, radioactive materials are placed directly into the cancer through needles.
Surgery is the treatment of choice only for a small group of vaginal cancers because vaginal cancer tends to involve more extensive, radical surgery than other cancers and may not be any more effective than radiation therapy. One exception includes treatment of stage I adenocarcinomas, which may be treated with a combination of limited surgery of the tumor and surrounding tissue, removal of lymph nodes and radiation to help to preserve fertility. This may be important because these cancers are more common in younger women. Another exception is treatment of stage II squamous cancers for women who cannot have radiation therapy, usually because they already have received radiation therapy for another cancer in the past. The extent of surgery will depend upon the cancer’s stage and size. Types of surgery include:
- Laser surgery — Using a narrow beam of light to kill cancer (useful in stage 0 cancers)
- Loop electroexcision — Using low-voltage, high-frequency radio waves through a thin loop of wire as a cutting device to remove superficial (stage 0) cancers
- Radical vaginectomy — Removing the vagina and adjacent tissues
- Vaginectomy combined with radical hysterectomy — Removing the vagina, the uterus and adjacent tissues
- Lymphadenectomy — Removing of the lymph nodes in the groin or inside the pelvis
- Pelvic exenteration — Radical hysterectomy, vaginectomy and removal of the bladder, rectum and part of the colon.
If all or part of the vagina must be removed, the vagina can be reconstructed with tissue from another part of the body.
When To Call A Professional
Contact your doctor if you develop any of the symptoms associated with vaginal cancer. Keep in mind that these symptoms can be associated with less dangerous conditions as well. You should always call your doctor right away if you have fevers associated with abdominal or pelvic pain. You might have a serious infection that needs treatment as soon as possible.
Prognosis depends upon the size and stage of the cancer at diagnosis. Early detection and treatment improves the outlook.
The American Cancer Society reports the following five-year survival rates for vaginal cancer:
- Squamous cell and adenocarcinomas
- Stage 0 — 96 percent
- Stage I — 73 percent
- Stage II — 58 percent
- Stage III/IV — 36 percent
- Melanoma (all stages) — 14 percent
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.