What is vaginal cancer?
The vagina is a tube-like organ in a woman’s reproductive system. It connects the cervix (lower part of the uterus) to the outside female genitals. When a baby is born, it passes through the vagina, so it’s also called the birth canal.
Normally, cells in the body will grow and divide to replace old or damaged cells. This growth is usually precise. Once enough cells are produced to replace the old ones, normal cells stop dividing. Tumors occur when there is an error and cells continue to grow uncontrollably. With vaginal cancer, a tumor develops from cancerous (malignant) cells in the vagina.
While vaginal cancers are rare, the most common type is squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that line the vagina. It’s slow to spread (metastasize) but can move into other organs including the liver, lungs and bones.
Successful treatment of vaginal cancer depends on age, stage and location of cancer and other factors.
What are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?
In its early stages, there are not often signs or symptoms of vaginal cancer. Your doctor may only find it during a routine exam or Pap test. As the cancer progresses, there may be symptoms that are similar to other conditions. These symptoms may include:
- Pelvic pain
- Painful or frequent urination
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Lump or mass in the vagina
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (bleeding between periods, postmenopausal bleeding)
What causes vaginal cancer?
The exact causes of vaginal cancer are unknown. However, there are possible risk factors that include age (60 years or older), smoking, having had cervical cancer, and HPV infection. HPV (human papilloma virus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. About 9 out of every 10 cases of vaginal cancer are linked to HPV infection.
How is vaginal cancer diagnosed?
Your doctor will first learn your and your family’s medical history and perform a physical exam. After your initial exam, your doctor may perform or order one or more of the following tests:
- Pap test
- Pelvic exam
- Imaging tests such as CT scan, CAT scan, PET scan, MRI or X-ray
- Colposcopy (vaginal exam to look for abnormal cells)
- Biopsy (removing a tiny piece of tissue for examination)
To learn how severe the cancer may be, your doctor will classify it by stage and grade.
How is vaginal cancer treated?
Surgery is the main treatment for vaginal cancer. Other treatments may include:
- Radiation therapy
- Clinical trials (experimental treatments)
Your treatment will depend on age, overall health, cancer stage, cancer size and location, and other factors.