What Is Vaginal Cancer?
Vaginal cancer—the growth of malignant cells in the vagina—is rare, representing less than 2 percent of all gynecologic cancers. Most cases of vaginal cancer occur in women over the age of 50.
However, some types may affect young women during adolescence or early adulthood, and one very rare type appears in children under five. Vaginal cancers are highly treatable and often curable; the outlook is optimistic with early detection and treatment.
What Causes Vaginal Cancer?
- The cause of vaginal cancer is unknown.
- Women whose mothers took the synthetic hormone DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy are at greater risk for vaginal cancer.
- Previous radiation therapy to the pelvic region carries a higher risk of the disease.
- Women who have had cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer have an increased risk.
- A history of untreated genital warts is associated with vaginal cancer.
Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer
- Vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods or after menopause
- Difficulty or pain when urinating
- Lump on vagina
- Firm, raised ulcer or growth in the vagina
- Vaginal pain or itching. Pain may be worse upon urination and during sexual intercourse
- Pelvic pain
Vaginal Cancer Prevention
- There is no way to prevent vaginal cancer, but regular pelvic examinations and Pap smears are advised to aid in the early detection and treatment of any vaginal or cervical abnormalities.
- Women whose mothers took the drug DES during pregnancy should have periodic pelvic examinations and Pap smears of the vagina as well as the cervix at least once a year. Colposcopy is also recommended for these women.
Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis
- Patient history and gynecologic examination are necessary.
- A Pap smear (involving the scraping of a small sample of cells from the cervix and vagina for microscopic inspection) may reveal the presence of malignant cells.
- Colposcopy (use of a special magnifying scope designed to examine the female reproductive system) may be used to view the vagina in detail. Biopsies may be taken at the time of the colposcopy.
- Pelvic examination is done to check for masses, lumps or tumor.
- Computed tomography scan (CAT or CT scan) can be done to get a clear and detailed image of the area being examined.
- Biopsy can be performed.
How to Treat Vaginal Cancer
- In the very earliest stage of vaginal cancer, a cream containing the chemotherapeutic medication fluorouracil may be applied intravaginally for five to 10 days.
- Laser surgery may be performed to eliminate a single tumor that has not spread.
- Radiation therapy may be used in addition to or instead of surgery to destroy cancerous cells. Both external and internal radiation may be administered; in internal radiation, small radioactive pellets are implanted in the body near the tumor site for 48 to 72 hours at a time.
- Conventional surgery may be performed to remove the cancerous region of the vagina and neighboring tissue. If a large portion of vaginal tissue is to be removed, a skin graft and plastic surgery can be performed to reconstruct a functional vagina. In more severe cases a hysterectomy (removal of the cervix and uterus) or a radical hysterectomy (removal of the cervix and uterus as well as the upper vagina, fallopian tubes, neighboring lymph nodes, and possibly the ovaries) may be advised.
When to Call a Doctor
Call a gynecologist if you develop abnormal vaginal itching, bleeding, or pain.
Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies: The Complete Home Medical Reference
Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Editor
Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50
Updated by Remedy Health Media