Everything You Need to Know About Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal Cancer

What is Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest cancers affecting the female reproductive system.

The vagina (birth canal) is the pathway through which fluid passes out of the body during menstrual periods.

Vaginal cancer is a condition in which cancer cells form in the vagina. Vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is much more challenging to treat.

Types of vaginal cancer

Types of vaginal cancer include:

  • Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma – develops in the thin, flat cells lining the surface of the vagina and is the most common type
  • Vaginal adenocarcinoma – begins in the surface cells of your vagina
  • Vaginal melanoma – which develops in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) of your vagina
  • Vaginal sarcoma – develops in the connective tissue cells or muscles cells in the walls of your vagina

What Are the Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer does not cause any symptoms. Your doctor might find it during a regular examination or Pap test.

If you have symptoms, they can include:

  • Unusual bleeding from your vagina
  • Watery or bad-smelling discharge from your vagina
  • Pain in your pelvis
  • Pain when having sex
  • Pain when peeing
  • Peeing more than usual
  • Constipation
  • A lump in your vagina

The symptoms of vaginal cancer may mimic other medical conditions. Always consult a doctor for a diagnosis.

What are the Causes of Vaginal Cancer?

The cause of vaginal cancer is unknown in most cases. Some factors that can increase your risk may include:

  • Age: Almost half of the patients are women 70 or older
  • A precancerous condition called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) often has no symptoms
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Smoking tobacco
  • HIV infection
  • Vaginal irritation
  • Previous radiation therapy for the pelvis
  • Previous diagnosis of cervical cancer

What are the Risk factors for vaginal cancer?

The risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Old Age (Most Vaginal Cancers Are Diagnosed After the Age Of 60)
  • Atypical Cells in The Vagina Called Vaginal Intraepithelial Neoplasia
  • Early Age at First Intercourse
  • Multiple Sexual Partners
  • Smoking
  • HIV Infection

How do you diagnose vaginal cancer?

Several tests used to diagnose vaginal cancer are:

Pelvic examination: Examination of the vagina is done to check for tumors, lumps, or masses.

Colposcopy: An instrument called a colposcope, with magnifying lenses, is used to examine the cervix and vagina for abnormalities.

Pap test or Pap Smear: In this procedure, a cotton swab, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina and is viewed under a microscope to detect abnormal cells.

Biopsy: The diagnosis of cancer is confirmed only by a biopsy. In this procedure, tissue samples from the vagina are removed for microscopic examination to determine the presence of cancer cells.

Gynecologic oncologists have expertise in diagnosing and treating female cancers, including vaginal cancer.

Treatment for vaginal cancer

Treatment may involve radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy (radiotherapy): Radiation therapy is a common treatment for vaginal cancer that uses radiation, such as x-rays, to kill or damage cancer cells. This also controls symptoms of advanced cancer.

Surgery: Surgery will aim to remove all of cancer along with some of the surrounding healthy tissue (called a margin). This helps reduce the risk of cancer coming back. 

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be given as tablets or by injection into a vein. It is usually performed if the vaginal cancer is advanced or returns after treatment and may be combined with surgery or radiation therapy

What Can You do to Prevent Vaginal Cancer?

Since many women with vaginal cancer have no known risk factors, it is not possible to completely prevent this disease. However, you can reduce your risk by the following measures:

  • Get routine pelvic exams and Pap Tests: This will help you to discover vaginal cancer in its earliest stages and is more likely to be cured.
  • Lower your risk of HPV: This includes using condoms and other barrier methods whenever you have sex. Receiving HPV vaccine may reduce your risk of vaginal cancer and other HPV-related cancers.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of vaginal cancer.