Vaginal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the vagina. The vagina is the canal leading from the cervix (the opening of uterus) to the outside of the body. At birth, a baby passes out of the body through the vagina (also called the birth canal). Vaginal cancer is not common.
There are two main types of vaginal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the vagina. Squamous cell vaginal cancer spreads slowly and usually stays near the vagina, but may spread to the lungs, liver or bone. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer.
- Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the vagina make and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinoma is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. A rare type of adenocarcinoma is linked to being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth. Adenocarcinomas that are not linked with being exposed to DES are most common in women after menopause.
Female Reproductive Organs
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Being exposed to the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth affect a woman’s risk of vaginal cancer. These additional risk factors increase your chance of developing vaginal cancer:
- Age: 60 and older
- History of cervical cancer
- History of precancerous conditions in the cervix or vagina
- Having a mother who took diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant
- Human papillomavirus infection (HPV)
- Having had a hysterectomy for health problems that affect the uterus.
Vaginal cancer often does not cause early signs or symptoms. It may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap test. Signs and symptoms may be caused by vaginal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area
- A lump in the vagina
- Pain when urinating
Tests may include:
- Physical exam and history
- Pelvic exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and rectum
- Pap test
If cancer is found, additional tests are usually done to determine whether or not it has spread to other parts of the pelvis or elsewhere in the body. These tests may include:
- CT scan
- MRI scan
Three types of standard treatment are used:
- Radiation therapy
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Vaginal Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <07/23/2014>. Available at: https://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/vaginal/Patient. Accessed <09/01/2014>.