Vaginal Cancer

What is Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer occurs in the vaginal canal, but the primary type that begins in the vagina is rare. It most often occurs when cancerous cells spread (metastasize) from other areas.

Like many other types of cancer the cause is unclear. It occurs when cells that were seemingly healthy uncontrollably grow, spread and amass into cancerous tumors. When it spreads from the vagina to other areas of the body it is much harder to remedy.

Cancer of the vagina is categorized according to type, and the type is based on location.

Vaginal cancer types include:

  • Vaginal melanoma: Forms in the pigment-producing cells of the vagina
  • Vaginal adenocarcinoma: Starts on the surface of the vaginal lining in the glandular cells
  • Vaginal sarcoma: Forms in vaginal muscles and other supporting tissue cells
  • Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma: Most common form that develops in the surface cells that line the vagina

What are the Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer?

Because the early stages of vaginal cancer are typically asymptomatic, it may go unnoticed at first. It is extremely important to have annual pap exams. When caught early, vaginal cancer prognosis improves with treatment.

Advances symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the pelvic region
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Lumbar pain
  • Constipation
  • Swollen legs
  • Leg pain
  • Unexplained vaginal bleeding
  • Watery discharge
  • Lump(s) in the vaginal canal
  • Increase in frequency of urination
  • Pain while urinating

Vaginal Cancer Causes

Vaginal cancer is an umbrella term that covers a number of different cancers that form in the canal that leads from the cervix to the outside of the body. These are primarily two different types of cancers: squamous cell vaginal cancer and adenocarcinoma. Both squamous cell vaginal cancer and adenocarcinoma are thought to be caused by a number of different risk factors. Primary among these is age: any woman who is 60 years of age or older is thought to be at greater risk of developing vaginal cancers.

The other primary risk factor is being exposed to DES while in their mother’s womb. DES is a drug that was given to women until the 1950s to prevent miscarriage. Some woman who were given this drug later developed a vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.

Another factor in causing vaginal cancer is having an human papilloma virus (HPV) infection or any other abnormal cell growth in the vagina. Finally, having a hysterectomy for health issues that affect the uterus is a common risk factor.

How is Vaginal Cancer Treated?

The treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the type and stage.

Treatments include:

  • Surgical removal of tumor(s)
  • Surgical removal of vagina (may include surrounding lymph nodes)
  • Surgical removal of vagina and surrounding pelvic organs
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Reconstructive surgery of the vagina
  • Treatment of side effects
  • Palliative (supportive) care

Vaginal Cancer Prevention

Preventing vaginal cancers is largely a matter of avoiding the primary risk factors given above. Besides these, women who want to prevent vaginal cancer should have regular exams, such as MRI, PET, CT and ureteroscopies, along with others, performed by their doctor to prevent problems before they become serious.

Vaginal cancers, like most cancers, progress in stages. If, during pelvic exams and other treatments, a doctor finds something abnormal, it should be monitored or treated in this appropriate stages. If a vaginal cancer has been found, a doctor will also perform tests to ensure that the cancer has not spread to another part of the body. If cancers of this type have been found, the doctor will recommend an appropriate course of treatment.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 10, 2017