Vaginal Cancer Facts, Symptoms and Information

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Vaginal cancer, which accounts for less than 2% of all gynaecological cancers, is a rare form of cancer that occurs in the vaginal lining. It normally grows very slowly, and your prognosis will depend on how large it is, if it has spread and your general health.

Vaginal cancer usually starts in other parts of the body, such as the cervix or uterus, and spreads to your vagina. Vaginal cancers that begin in the vagina are uncommon.

As vaginal cancers often do not display any symptoms, having regular pelvic exams and pap smears is the best way to find and prevent abnormalities before they turn cancerous.


What Causes Vaginal Cancer?

Although researchers do not know for sure what causes vaginal cancer, it seems likely that a relationship exists between vaginal cancer and high-risk strains of HPV. Many people diagnosed with vaginal cancer test positive for the types of HPV linked to cervical cancer.


Vaginal Cancer May Be Caused by Several Factors


You are more at risk of developing vaginal cancer if you are over the age of 60.



Certain high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer and vaginal cancer. You are most at risk of infection if you have multiple sex partners and are unvaccinated against HPV.


Vaginal Intraepithelial Neoplasia (VAIN)

Having VAIN means that you have cells in your vaginal lining that are abnormal, but not cancerous. VAIN, which might be linked to an HPV infection, can progress to vaginal cancer in some people.


Cervical Cancer Or Cervical Dysplasia

You may develop vaginal cancer after being treated for cervical cancer. Abnormal cells in your cervix, or cervical dysplasia, may increase your risk of vaginal cancer.


Diethylstilbestrol (DES)

DES was prescribed between 1940 and 1971 to prevent pregnancy complications. You may be at increased risk of developing adenocarcinoma if your mother took DES during pregnancy and you were exposed.



Smoking doubles your risk of developing vaginal cancer. 


What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer does not always cause symptoms. Having regular pap smear screenings will allow your healthcare provider to notice any abnormalities long before any symptoms develop.

When symptoms occur, which might be at an advanced stage of vaginal cancer, they usually include one or more of the following:


  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Vaginal discharge that is watery, bloody or smells bad
  • A noticeable lump in your vagina
  • Painful urination or feeling the urge to urinate frequently
  • Constipation or black-coloured stools
  • Feeling the urge to open your bowels when your bowels are empty
  • Pelvic pain


How Is Vaginal Cancer Diagnosed?

Based on your symptoms, your healthcare provider will perform several tests to check for cancer or precancerous cells. Initially, you will likely have a pelvic exam and a pap smear. If your healthcare provider finds abnormal cells, you may need further tests, such as a colposcopy and a vaginal biopsy.


Common Tests and Procedures for Diagnosis

Pelvic Exam

During this exam, your vulva and vagina will be examined for any abnormalities. A tool called a speculum is often used to widen your vagina to allow closer inspection of the vagina and cervix.


Pap Smear

By inserting a speculum into your vagina, your healthcare provider can scrape cells from your cervix. This sample gets tested in a laboratory for signs of cancer or HPV.



During this procedure, your doctor uses a lighted instrument called a colposcope to look for any abnormal cells in your vagina and cervix.



A biopsy is often performed during a colposcopy. A tissue sample is sent to the laboratory to be tested for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only test that can confirm a cancer diagnosis.


What are the Different Types of Vaginal Cancer?

The different types of vaginal cancer are named after the cells in your vagina where cancer starts. The following types of vaginal cancer are recognised:


Squamous Cell Carcinoma 

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer and accounts for nearly 90% of all cases. Squamous cells are the flat cells that line your vagina.



Adenocarcinoma starts in gland cells in your vagina. It is most common in women over 50 although clear cell adenocarcinoma often affects women under 50. These women were exposed to a pregnancy drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) when they were developing in the uterus.



Melanoma begins in the melanocytes cells, which are the cells that give your vagina its colour. Vaginal melanomas are very rare.



Sarcoma begins in the connective tissue and muscle tissue of the vaginal wall. Vaginal sarcomas are extremely rare.


How Is Vaginal Cancer Treated?

Treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the type of cancer, cancer stage, and your age. Usually, laser surgery and topical medicines are used to treat precancerous cells while invasive vaginal cancer will require surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.


The following procedures are normally performed to treat vaginal cancer:


  • Wide Local Excision: During this procedure, the tumour is removed along with some of the healthy tissue surrounding it.


  • Vaginectomy (Partial or Radical): This surgery removes all or part of your vagina, depending on the tumour size and location. If the cancer has spread, your doctor may remove surrounding lymph nodes, your uterus and your cervix.


  • Pelvic Exenteration: This surgery removes several organs from your pelvis, including the rectum, bladder, uterus, cervix, vagina, ovaries and nearby lymph nodes. This radical type of surgery may be necessary if you have recurring cancer.



Radiation uses targeted energy beams to destroy or stop cancer cells from dividing.

  • External Radiation therapy uses a machine outside your body to direct beams of high-energy radiation at your tumour.
  • Internal Radiation therapy involves inserting devices containing radioactive material inside your vagina, either into or near the tumour.



Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is usually used alongside radiation to enhance its effectiveness.


Clinical Trials

You may be able to take part in a clinical trial to try new cancer treatments in the development stage.


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