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Vaginal cancer

Definition

Vaginal cancer is cancer of the vagina, a female reproductive organ.

Alternative Names

Vaginal cancer; Cancer - vagina; Tumor - vaginal

Causes

Most vaginal cancers occur when another cancer, such as cervical or endometrial cancer, spreads. This is called secondary vaginal cancer.

Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. This type of cancer is rare. Most primary vaginal cancers start in skin cells called squamous cells. This cancer is known as squamous cell cancer. The other types are adenocarcinoma, melanoma, and sarcoma.

The cause of squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina is unknown. But a history of cervical cancer is common in women with squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina.

Most women with squamous cell cancer of the vagina are over 50.

Adenocarcinoma of the vagina usually affects younger women. The average age at which this cancer is diagnosed is 19. Women whose mothers took the medicine diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages during the first 3 months of pregnancy are more likely to develop vaginal adenocarcinoma.

Sarcoma of the vagina is a rare cancer that mainly occurs in infancy and early childhood.

Symptoms

Symptoms of vaginal cancer can include any of the following:

  • Bleeding after having sex
  • Painless vaginal bleeding and discharge not due to normal period
  • Pain in the pelvis or vagina

Some women have no symptoms.

Exams and Tests

In women with no symptoms, the cancer may be found during a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear.

Other tests to diagnose vaginal cancer include:

Other tests that may be done to check if the cancer has spread include:

Treatment

Treatment of vaginal cancer depends on the type of cancer and how far the disease has spread.

Surgery is sometimes used to remove the cancer. But most women are treated with radiation. If the tumor is cervical cancer that has spread to the vagina, radiation and chemotherapy are both given.

Sarcoma may be treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group whose members share common experiences and problems.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Outlook for women with vaginal cancer depends on the stage of disease and the specific type of tumor.

Possible Complications

Vaginal cancer may spread to other areas of the body. Complications can occur from radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you notice bleeding after sex or have persistent vaginal bleeding or discharge.

Prevention

There are no definite ways to prevent this cancer. You can increase your chance of early detection by getting regular yearly pelvic examinations and Pap smears.

References

Hacker NF. Vulvar and vaginal cancer. In: Hacker NF, Gambone JC, Hobel CJ, eds. Hacker and Moore's Essentials of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 40.

Jhingran A, Russell AH, Seiden MV, et al. Cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 87.

National Cancer Institute. PDQ vaginal cancer treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated February 9, 2016. cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/vaginal/HealthProfessional. Accessed March 17, 2016.

Review Date:2/12/2016
Reviewed By:Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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