Vaginal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the vagina (birth canal) the muscular tube that connects your uterus with your outer genitals. Vaginal cancer most commonly occurs in the cells that line the surface of your vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal.
While several types of cancer can spread to your vagina from other places in your body, cancer that begins in your vagina (primary vaginal cancer) is rare.
Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. Primary vaginal cancer is rare. More commonly, cancer cells in the vagina are from cancer that started somewhere else, such as the cervix. There are two main types of primary vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
The vast majority of vaginal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers arise from the surface of the lining of the vagina. They usually develop slowly, most often in the upper part of the vagina near the cervix. This type of cancer typically affects women between 50 and 70 years old.
Adenocarcinomas form in the glands in the vaginal wall. This type of cancer is much less common than squamous cell carcinoma. However, it is the most common type of vaginal cancer in women younger than 20 years old. Daughters of mothers who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have a higher risk of developing this rare form of cancer. (DES, introduced in the 1940s to help prevent miscarriages, was banned in the United States in 1971.)
Doctors recently identified vaginal lesions that are not cancerous. These lesions are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia, or VAIN. Having VAIN may make a woman more likely to develop cancer. VAIN is associated with human papilloma virus (HPV) infections. HPV infection can also lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers.
Less common types of vaginal cancer include malignant melanomas and sarcomas. Melanomas tend to affect the lower or outer part of the vagina. Sarcomas develop deep in the vaginal wall.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer include:
- abnormal vaginal bleeding, often after sex, that is not related to your period
- unusual vaginal discharge
- a mass that can be felt
- pain during sex
- pain in the pelvis
- painful urination and constipation.
These symptoms also occur in several less dangerous—and more common—conditions, such as infections of the reproductive organs. But these symptoms should always be evaluated by a doctor.
In some cases, a woman may not have any symptoms. Instead, the disease is found during a routine exam.
Your doctor will ask about your medical history, symptoms, and risk factors for vaginal cancer. He or she will then perform an internal pelvic exam and Pap smear. During a Pap smear, a small plastic stick and soft brush are used to collect cells from the vagina and cervix. These cells are examined for abnormalities.
If the exam or Pap smear shows any abnormalities, your doctor will do a colposcopy. During this exam, he or she will look at the cervix and walls of the vagina with a magnifying lens. Small bits of tissue may be removed and checked for cancer cells in a laboratory. This is called a biopsy.