General Information About Vaginal Cancer
Key Points for This Section
- Vaginal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the vagina.
- Age and being exposed to the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth affect a woman’s risk of vaginal cancer.
- Possible signs of vaginal cancer include pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding.
- Tests that examine the vagina and other organs in the pelvis are used to detect (find) and diagnose vaginal cancer.
- Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
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.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for vaginal cancer include the following:
- Being aged 60 or older.
- Being exposed to DES while in the mother's womb. In the 1950s, the drug DES was given to some pregnant women to prevent miscarriage (premature birth of a fetus that cannot survive). Women who were exposed to DES before birth have an increased risk of vaginal cancer. Some of these women develop a rare form of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
- Having human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.
- Having a history of abnormal cells in the cervix or cervical cancer.
- Having a history of abnormal cells in the uterus or cancer of the uterus.
- Having had a hysterectomy for health problems that affect the uterus.
Vaginal cancer often does not cause early symptoms and may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap test. When symptoms occur, they may be caused by vaginal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:
- 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.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Pelvic exam: An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and places the other hand over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test or Pap smear of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.
- Pap smear: A procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal. This procedure is also called a Pap test.
- Colposcopy : A procedure in which a colposcope (a lighted, magnifying instrument) is used to check the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas. Tissue samples may be taken using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
- Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues from the vagina and cervix so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If a Pap smear shows abnormal cells in the vagina, a biopsy may be done during a colposcopy.
- The stage of the cancer (whether it is in the vagina only or has spread to other areas).
- The size of the tumor.
- The grade of tumor cells (how different they are from normal cells).
- Where the cancer is within the vagina.
- Whether there are symptoms at diagnosis.
- The patient's age and general health.
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).
When found in early stages, vaginal cancer can often be cured.
Treatment options depend on the following:
- The stage and size of the cancer.
- Whether the cancer is close to other organs that may be damaged by treatment.
- Whether the tumor is made up of squamous cells or is an adenocarcinoma.
- Whether the patient has a uterus or has had a hysterectomy.
- Whether the patient has had past radiation treatment to the pelvis.