Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that forms in the tissues of the vagina. The vagina, also called the birth canal, is the hollow, tube-like channel that leads from the cervix (the opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body.
The Cleveland Clinic reports there are two main types of vaginal cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common. It forms in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the vagina. Squamous cell vaginal cancer spreads slowly and usually stays near the vagina, but may spread to the lungs and liver.
Adenocarcinoma cancer is found most often in women age 30 or younger. It begins in glandular cells. This is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes.
Cancer.gov says the risk factors for vaginal cancer include being 60 or older; having human papilloma virus (HPV) and having a history of abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) list if your mother took diethylstilbestrol (DES) during her pregnancy. Doctors prescribed DES in the 1950's to prevent miscarriages. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) add smoking may also increase the risk.
Most vaginal cancers don’t cause early symptoms. But if there are, the CDC says they may include abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding; blood in the stool or urine; going to the bathroom more often than usual; or feeling constipated; pain in the pelvis, the area below the stomach and in between the hip bones, especially when passing urine or having sex. NIH says another possible symptom is a vaginal lump.
According to the Cleveland Clinic and cancer.gov, the three types of vaginal cancer treatment are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Surgery is the most common. Procedures include laser surgery that make bloodless cuts in tissue or to remove a surface lesion like a tumor; wide local excision that cuts out the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it; vaginectomy which removes all or part of the vagina; total hysterectomy to remove the uterus, including the cervix; or a lymphadenectomy where lymph nodes are removed and checked for cancer.
Another option is pelvic exenteration. This removes the lower colon, rectum, bladder, cervix, vagina, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes. Artificial openings are made so urine and stool can exit the body.
Radiation therapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing. Chemotherapy uses drugs to halt the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them or by stopping them from dividing.
As with most cancers, when found early, treatment is more effective.
Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers. CDC.gov by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web 30 Aug 2011.
Vaginal Cancer. Cancer.gov by the National Cancer Institute. Web 30 Aug 2011.
Vaginal Cancer. Medline Plus by U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web 30 Aug 2011.
Vaginal Cancer. ClevelandClinic.org by the Cleveland Clinic. Web 30 Aug 2011.
Vaginal Cancer. MayoClinic.com by Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Web 30 Aug 2011.
Reviewed August 31, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith