Vaginal cancer usually occurs in the cells that line the surface of the vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal. While several types of cancer may spread from other parts of the body to the vagina, cancer that begins in the vagina (primary vaginal cancer) is rare.
Diagnosing vaginal cancer at an early stage provides a better chance of recovery. And vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is more difficult to treat.
In the early stages, vaginal cancer may not cause any signs or symptoms. But as vaginal cancer develops, it may cause signs and symptoms such as:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, for example, after sexual intercourse or after menopause
- watery vaginal discharge
- Lump or mass in the vagina
- Painful urination
- frequent urination
- Pelvic pain
It is unclear what causes 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, and eventually die at a specific time. Cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, and do not die.
Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can separate from the primary tumor to spread elsewhere in the body.
Vaginal cancer is divided into different types according to the type of cell in which cancer began to appear. Vaginal cancer types include:
- Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma, which begins to appear in the flat thin cells (squamous cells) that line the surface of the vagina. This is considered the most common type.
- Vaginal adenocarcinoma, which begins to appear in the glandular cells located on the surface of the vagina
- Vaginal melanoma, which appears in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the vagina
- Vaginal sarcoma, which appears in connective tissue cells or muscle cells in the vaginal walls
Factors that may increase your risk of vaginal cancer include:
- Having more than one sexual partner
- Having sex for the first time at a young age
- HIV infection
Sometimes vaginal cancer is discovered during a routine pelvic examination before signs and symptoms appear. During a pelvic exam, your doctor carefully examines the external genitalia, then inserts two fingers in your vagina and simultaneously presses with the other hand on your stomach to feel the uterus and ovary. Your doctor will also insert a colposcope into your vagina. The vaginal speculum opens the vaginal canal so that your doctor can examine your vagina and cervix for abnormalities. Your doctor may also perform a Pap test. Pap test is usually used to detect cervical cancer, but vaginal cancer cells can sometimes be detected by a Pap test.
The doctor examines the pelvic and cervical area and based on the results, the doctor can perform several procedures to determine whether a woman has vaginal cancer, such as the following:
- Vaginal examination using a magnifying instrument. Colposcopy is a vaginal examination that uses a special lighted magnifying instrument called a colposcope. Colposcopy allows the doctor to magnify the surface of the vagina to see areas with abnormal cells.
- Removing a sample from the vaginal tissue for testing. A biopsy is a procedure to extract a sample of suspicious tissue to test it for cancer cells. Your doctor may take a biopsy of the tissue during a colposcopy examination and send it to the lab for examination.
Your vaginal cancer treatment options depend on several factors, including the type and stage of vaginal cancer. You can discuss with your doctor the best treatments for you based on your treatment goals and the side effects that you can tolerate. Vaginal cancer treatment usually includes surgery and radiation.