Vaginal Cancer

What is Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the vagina, or birth canal. There are several types of vaginal cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type. It begins in the thin, flat cells that line the vagina. It spreads slowly, and it most often stays near the vagina. In a few cases, it may spread to the lungs, liver, or bone. Another less common type of vaginal cancer is adenocarcinoma. This is a type of cancer that begins in cells that make fluids such as mucus.

Vaginal cancer can often be cured when it is found early.

What are the causes?

The exact cause of this condition is not known.

What increases the risk?

The following factors may make you more likely to develop this condition:

  • Being infected with certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus).
  • Smoking.
  • Having been exposed to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth. Between 1940 and 1971, this drug was given to some pregnant women to keep their babies from being born too soon.
  • Being 60 years of age or older. Women who are age 70 or older have a higher risk.
  • Having a history of abnormal cells in the cervix or uterus.
  • Having had cervical or uterine cancer.
  • Having HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

What are the signs or symptoms?

Symptoms of this condition include:

  • Vaginal bleeding or discharge that is not caused by your menstrual period.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse or bleeding after sexual intercourse.
  • Pain in the pelvic area.
  • A lump in the vagina.
  • Pain when you urinate.
  • Constipation.

How is this diagnosed?

This condition may be diagnosed based on:

  • A physical exam and your medical history.
  • A pelvic exam to check the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum.
  • A Pap test. This test involves collecting cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina.
  • Colposcopy. A lighted, magnifying instrument is used to check the vagina for abnormal areas.
  • Biopsy. Cells or tissues are removed from the vagina and areas around it, such as the lymph nodes, to check for signs of cancer.

Other tests may be done to find out if your cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. These tests may include:

  • Imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, chest X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan.
  • Proctosigmoidoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted into the rectum to look for cancer.
  • Cystoscopy. A thin tube with a lens and a light is inserted into the bladder through the urethra to look for cancer. If something suspicious is found, a biopsy may be done.

How is this treated?

Treatment for this condition may include:

  • Laser therapy to remove surface cells. This is often used when precancerous cells are found.
  • Surgery to help remove the cancer from your body.
  • Radiation therapy. This treatment uses X-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Brachytherapy, which involves placing radioactive materials inside the body where the cancer was removed.
  • Chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells and keep them from growing.

A combination of treatments may be used to treat vaginal cancer.

Follow these instructions at home:

  • Follow your care plan as directed by your health care team.
  • Take good care of your overall health. A healthy lifestyle may help you recover faster. This includes:
    • Following the diet that your health care provider recommends.
    • Getting plenty of exercise.
    • Not using any products that contain nicotine or tobacco, such as cigarettes and e-cigarettes. If you need help quitting, ask your health care provider.
  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Do not drive or use heavy machinery while taking prescription pain medicine.
  • Do not have sex or place anything in your vagina until your health care provider says that it is safe for you.
  • Do not lift anything that is heavier than the limit that your health care team tells you, until they say that it is safe.
  • Return to your normal activities as told by your health care team. Ask your health care team what activities are safe for you.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care team. This is important.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • You have new or unusual symptoms.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have bleeding or bruises that you cannot explain.
  • You feel depressed or sad.
  • You have vaginal discharge that has a bad-smelling odor.

Get help right away if:

  • You have unusual pain, including strong headaches.
  • You have shortness of breath or trouble breathing.
  • You feel dizzy or light-headed.
  • You have bleeding that does not stop.

Summary

  • Vaginal cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the vagina, or birth canal.
  • Treatment may include laser therapy, surgery, radiation therapy, brachytherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.
  • Follow your care plan as directed by your health care team.
  • Take good care of your overall health. A healthy lifestyle may help you recover faster.
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