Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that occurs in the vagina, the muscular tube that connects the uterus to the outer genitals. It most commonly occurs in the cells that line the surface of the vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal. While several types of cancer can spread to the vagina f
Early vaginal cancer may not cause any signs and symptoms. It may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap test. As it progresses, vaginal cancer may cause signs and symptoms such as:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, for example, after intercourse or after menopause
- Watery vaginal discharge
- A lump or mass in your vagina
- Painful urination
- Frequent urination
- Pelvic pain
It's not clear what causes vaginal cancer. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) causes two-thirds of the cases of vaginal cancer. Vaccines that protect against infection with HPV may reduce the risk of vaginal cancer. In general, cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic mutation that turns normal cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don't die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
Treatment options for vaginal cancer depend on several factors, including the type of vaginal cancer and its stage. Treatment for vaginal cancer typically includes surgery and radiation.
SurgeryTypes of surgery that may be used to treat vaginal cancer include:
- Removal of small tumors or lesions. Cancer limited to the surface of the vagina may be cut away, along with a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed.
- Removal of the vagina (partial or full).
- Removal of the majority of the pelvic organs (pelvic exenteration). This extensive surgery may be an option if cancer has spread throughout the pelvic area or if vaginal cancer has recurred. During pelvic exenteration, the bladder, ovaries, uterus, vagina, rectum and the lower portion of the colon may be removed.
Radiation TherapyRadiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation can be delivered externally or internally (brachytherapy) or both.
ChemotherapyIf surgery and radiation does not control the cancer, chemotherapy may be offered. It is unclear whether chemotherapy is useful for treating vaginal cancer and generally isn't used on its own to treat vaginal cancer. Chemotherapy may be used during radiation therapy to enhance the effectiveness of radiation. See the National Cancer Institute's Treatment Summary for Vaginal Cancer for more information.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information, US statistics, and resources related to vaginal and vulvar cancer. Globe-athon to End Women's Cancer offers a collection of educational video lectures for the general public in which experts cover a variety of topics related to women's cancer. The National Cancer Institute is a reliable source for in-depth information about many cancers including vaginal cancer.
Global Cancer Observatory 2018 Fact Sheet on worldwide incidence, mortality and prevalence of vaginal cancer. The Global Cancer Observatory is an interactive web-based platform presenting global cancer statistics to inform cancer control and research. It uses data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer which is a specialized agency of the World Health Organization.