What is Vaginal Cancer?
Cancer is the growth of abnormal cells, which can grow together to form masses called tumors. Vaginal cancer is not common and occurs in the cells that line the surface of the vagina. The main types of vaginal cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma, which starts in the thin, flat cells that line the vagina.
- Adenocarcinoma, which starts in the cells that line the vagina that make mucus.
Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with cancer and the diagnosis, treatment and management of vaginal cancer. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.
Signs and Symptoms
Vaginal cancer symptoms may not be apparent, especially in the early stages of the condition. That’s why regular gynecologic exams are important. As cancer advances, symptoms like these may be evident:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially after sex
- A lump in the vagina
- Pain when urinating
- Pain during intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area, back or leg
To determine if someone has vaginal cancer, we perform a physical examination, including a pelvic exam, and ask questions about a person’s medical history. We then use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:
Pap test: In this test, a sample of cells is taken from the outside of the cervix and vagina and examined under the microscope for cancer cells.
Colposcopy: During this test, the physician swabs the walls of the vagina with a special solution that makes abnormal cells easy to view. The physician then uses a special lighted magnifier, called a colposcope, to view the walls of the cervix and vagina. Removal of cells, also called a biopsy, can be done during this procedure. A pathologist views the cells under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
Imaging tests: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) helps to locate and determine the size of a vaginal tumor. If needed, dye is injected through a vein to create contrast for a clearer view of the tumor. Other imaging studies may include X-rays, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
Some lifestyle factors that can cause vaginal cancer include:
Risk factors that can contribute to vaginal cancer include:
Age: Vaginal cancer occurs most often in women age 60 or older.
Exposure to certain chemicals: Women whose mothers took a miscarriage prevention drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer.
Cervical cancer: Women who have had cervical cancer or who have had abnormal cells in the cervix have a higher risk for vaginal cancer.
Not being vaccinated: Women who do not get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine are at higher risk for developing HPV and vaginal cancer.
Weakened immune system: Women with a weakened immune system cannot fight HPV as well as healthier women and are at higher risk for developing HPV and vaginal cancer.
While some risk factors cannot be controlled, there are ways you can help to prevent vaginal cancer:
Don’t smoke: Smoking is a known cause of cancer. Women who smoke are nearly twice as likely as non-smoking women to develop vaginal cancer.
Avoid HPV exposure: HPV can be spread through vaginal and anal intercourse, oral sex, and skin-to-skin contact. Take precautions to avoid exposure.
Practice safe sex: Use a condom and avoid sexual intercourse with multiple partners or a partner who has had multiple partners.
Get Vaccinated: Beginning as early as age 9, girls and boys should have the HPV vaccine to protect against the two most common types of HPV. The vaccine is a series of two to three shots given over a 6- to-12-month time frame. The vaccine series is indicated for both girls and boys age 9 to 26 for the prevention of diseases caused by certain types of HPV, including the types of HPV considered high-risk for the development of cancer of the vagina.
Prognosis depends upon how early the vaginal cancer is diagnosed, the size and location of the tumor, and if it has spread.
Treatment and Recovery
Vaginal cancer treatment depends upon the stage of cancer, size of the tumor, age and health of the woman, and if she wishes to have children.
Surgery is the most common vaginal cancer treatment, including removal of the tumor and healthy tissue around the tumor, and vaginal repair. Surgical options include:
- Laser surgery: This procedure uses a focused beam of light to burn away cancer cells.
- Tumor excision: During this procedure, cancer on the surface of the vagina is surgically removed.
- Vaginectomy: This is the removal of the vagina and possibly some pelvic lymph nodes. A new vagina can be reconstructed from the woman’s own tissue.
- Radical hysterectomy: If cancer has spread to other areas of the reproductive system, the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes may be removed.
After surgery, or if cancer has spread elsewhere in the body, this treatment uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. The radiation is directed specifically to the vagina and other affected tissues or organs. Radiation can be given externally, where a beam of radiation is directed at the targeted treatment area, or internally using radioactive devices placed temporarily in the vagina.
After surgery, or if cancer has spread elsewhere in the body, special drugs designed to kill cancer cells can be given as a pill, injected into the bloodstream or applied directly into the vagina in the form of a cream.
Vaginal cancer may spread to other areas of the body.
Next Steps with MyChart
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