Vaginal Cancer

The vagina is the canal between the cervix and the outside of the body. It is often referred to as the birth canal because a baby must pass through the vagina during childbirth. Malignant cancer cells in the lining of the vagina are called squamous cell carcinoma, a slow-moving cancer most often found in women over 60. Cancer in the secretory cells of the vagina is called adnocarcinoma. This cancer is more likely to spread than squamous cell carcinoma, and it is more common in woman under 30. Cancer of the vagina is not common, and early intervention can cure the disease.

Causes of Vaginal Cancer

No single cause of vaginal cancer has been identified, but there are several risk factors that, on their own or in combination with each other, can increase the chances of developing vaginal cancer.

  • Over 60 years old
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES)
  • HPV infection
  • History of cervical cancer or abnormal Pap test

Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer does not have any early signs so routine Pap tests is essential for early detection. As the cancer advances, patients may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Lump or mass in the vagina

Diagnosing Vaginal Cancer

A diagnosis of vaginal cancer is usually made with the following medical tests.

  • Medical history and physical exam
  • Pelvic exam – lumps in the vagina or surrounding organs may be felt
  • Pap test or Pap smear – collects cells from the vagina and cervix for examination
  • Biopsy – tissue is removed from the vagina and cervix for examination by a pathologist if a Pap smear returns positive
  • Colposcopy – allows your doctor to visually inspect the vagina

Treating Vaginal Cancer

Treatment choices for vaginal cancer depend on the size of the tumor, type of cells involved, location of the tumor, degree of symptoms, and whether the cancer has spread. Surgical treatment is the most common approach for vaginal cancer.

Surgical treatments

  • Laser surgery – removes cancer tissue using a laser
  • Vaginectomy – removal of all or part of the vagina
  • Hysterectomy – removal of the uterus and cervix
  • Lymphadenectomy or lymph node dissection – removal of lymph nodes and examination for cancer cells. This procedure may involve nodes in the pelvis or groin depending on the location of the cancer
  • Pelvic exenteration – removal of the lower colon, rectum, and bladder along with the cervix, vagina, ovaries, and lymph nodes for advanced cancer

Radiation treatments

  • External radiation – high-energy radiation is directed at the cancer cells from outside the body
  • Internal radiation – radioactive materials are placed directly into the tumor using tiny seeds, needles, wires, or catheters

Chemotherapy

Chemicals that kill cancer cells are used either locally by injecting them directly into the area of the cancer or systemically by introducing them into the blood stream or by taking them orally. Squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina can also be treated with a topically applied chemotherapy cream.