Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that usually forms in your vaginal lining. You’re at a higher risk of developing it if you’re over 60 or have HPV. Vaginal cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms, which is why it’s a good idea to get regular pelvic exams and Pap smears to detect cancer early.
Vaginal cancer is a rare form of cancer that most often occurs in the cells lining your vagina. The vagina is a tube-like organ that connects your cervix (the lower part of your uterus) to your vulva (genitals).
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There are different types of vaginal cancer. They’re named after the cells in your vagina where cancer starts.
About 1 in 100,000 women and people assigned female at birth is diagnosed with vaginal cancer, usually squamous cell carcinoma. Vaginal cancer accounts for only 1 to 2% of gynecological cancers.
Your chances of getting vaginal cancer increase if:
Vaginal cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms. You may not know you have it until your healthcare provider notices abnormal cells during a routine screening. This is why it’s important to get checked regularly. Your provider can detect vaginal cancer even when your body isn’t alerting you that something’s wrong.
When symptoms occur, they include:
Although 8 in 10 people with invasive vaginal cancer have one or more of these symptoms, these symptoms rarely indicate a condition as serious as vaginal cancer. Still, you should see your provider as soon as possible if you notice these signs.
Researchers don’t know for sure what causes vaginal cancer. Still, as with cervical cancer, there’s likely a relationship between vaginal cancer and high-risk strains of HPV. Studies have shown that many people diagnosed with vaginal cancer have also tested positive for antibodies associated with the types of HPV linked to cervical cancer.
Vaginal cancer cells behave as all cancer cells do. Instead of growing, multiplying and eventually dying like a normal cell, cancer cells continue to grow. The cells multiply until they form tumors. Over time, these tumors may spread to other parts of your body (metastasize) and invade healthy tissue.
Your healthcare provider will begin your examination by asking about your symptoms. You’ll most likely receive several tests to check for cancer or precancerous cells. Imaging procedures can help your provider see if your cancer has spread, a process called staging.
You’ll likely have a pelvic exam and a Pap smear (Pap test). If your provider finds abnormal cells, you may need further tests, like a colposcopy and a vaginal biopsy. A biopsy is the only test that can confirm a cancer diagnosis.
Staging allows your provider to determine how advanced your cancer is. Vaginal cancer is staged in three ways, based on how far the tumor has progressed in your vagina, whether it has spread to your lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body. These three categories are called T (tumor), N (nodes), and M (whether it has spread, or metastasized).
Your provider can stage your cancer by using information from the test results and by performing procedures that allow them to see inside your body.
Treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the type of cancer, cancer stage, and your age. Depending on your age, your treatment may also depend on whether you’d like to have children.
In general, laser surgery and topical treatments are used to treat precancerous cells. Invasive vaginal cancer will often require surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. You may receive a variety of treatments.
Radiation uses targeted energy beams, like X-rays, to destroy cancer cells or keep them from dividing.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy alone isn’t an effective treatment for vaginal cancer, but it may be used alongside radiation to enhance its effectiveness. Sometimes, chemotherapy is used to treat tumors that disappear with treatment and later return.
Your provider may recommend you take part in a clinical trial to try new cancer treatments in development. The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute are good resources for locating current clinical trials involving vaginal cancer treatments.
You can’t prevent vaginal cancer, but you can reduce your risk.
Your prognosis for vaginal cancer depends on the stage at which it’s diagnosed. Early-stage vaginal cancers can often be successfully treated, and you can go on to live a full life. Later-stage cancers are harder to treat and may require ongoing chemotherapy and other treatment options. For this reason, it’s important to get regular gynecological exams, even when you feel healthy. Seek medical advice at the first sign of symptoms.
Yes. But it’s rare for cancer to begin in your vagina, as with vaginal cancer. More often, cancers that begin in other parts of your body spread to your vagina. Cancers that spread to your vagina most commonly begin in your cervix (cervical cancer) or the lining of your uterus (uterine cancer/endometrial cancer).
Vaginal bleeding is a common symptom of multiple cancers, including vaginal cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer. But abnormal bleeding is a common sign of multiple conditions, not just cancer. Don’t assume you have cancer if you have unusual bleeding. Still, see your healthcare provider to get checked.
The most common symptom of vaginal cancer is painless vaginal bleeding, which means you may not feel vaginal cancer at all. Less commonly, you may experience pain in your pelvis, painful urination or discomfort related to constipation.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you receive a vaginal cancer diagnosis, it’s important to have an honest discussion with your provider about the type of cancer, if it’s spread, and what your treatment options are. Your prognosis will depend on multiple factors. Your provider is your best resource for explaining what this diagnosis means for you.
In the meantime, establishing a support network that includes family members, friends, current cancer patients and cancer survivors is an essential part of your care plan, too. The American Cancer Society can connect you with cancer support groups. Speak to a counselor to process your diagnosis. Getting your emotional needs met is as important as the clinical care you receive.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/29/2022.
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