Vaginal Cancer | Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center | Loyola Medicine

Vaginal Cancer

Why Choose Loyola for Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer is a rare form of cancer in women that occurs in the lining of the vagina, or the birth canal. It is more common in women over 60. There are several different types of vaginal cancer, depending on the type of cell that is affected. These types include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Most common, begins in the cells that line the vagina and located near the cervix
  • Adenocarcinoma: Begins in the gland cells of the vagina
  • Melanoma: More rare, this type is located in the outer part of the vagina
  • Sarcoma: Most rare type of vaginal cancer, located in the walls of the vagina

Symptoms and Signs of Vaginal Cancer

You may not notice the symptoms of vaginal cancer in its earliest stages, because they are often mild and seem unrelated to any serious problems. If you have any of the following symptoms, notify your doctor to get screened for vaginal cancer:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, unrelated to your menstrual cycle
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Constipation
  • Lump or mass in the vagina
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Painful and/or frequent urination
  • Pelvic pain

Causes and Risk Factors of Vaginal Cancer

It is not known what causes vaginal cancer, but you may be at a higher risk if you:

  • Are age 60 or older
  • Have been exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) – If your mother took this specific miscarriage prevention drug, you may be at a higher risk.
  • Have had multiple sexual partners
  • Have or have had a sexually transmitted infection, such as HPV, HIV and herpes simplex virus
  • Smoke or have smoked

How Is Vaginal Cancer Diagnosed?

An annual gynecologic exam is important in catching vulvar cancer in its earliest stages. Regular screening is key to identifying cancer before it has the chance to spread.

If cancer is suspected, your doctor will conduct a thorough medical history and physical exam, as well as a pelvic exam and Pap test. If he/she determines that you have vaginal cancer, you will then go through a process known as staging to verify the extent to which it has or has not spread and start building a treatment plan.

Staging includes imaging tests such as:

Your doctor may also use a test called a colposcopy, which involves a tiny camera and small instrument to see the inside of your vagina or cervix. 

How is Vaginal Cancer Treated?

Vaginal cancer treatment typically involves surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, depending on the type of vaginal cancer and the extent to which it has spread. Your age also factors in if you would like to have children after treatment is complete.

Surgical options to treat vaginal cancer:

  • Laser surgery: Cancer cells are burned off with a focused beam of light 
  • Excision: The cancer is cut out from the surrounding healthy tissue
  • Vaginectomy: Removal of part or the entire vagina
  • Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus and ovaries
  • Lymphadenectomy/lymph node dissection: Removal of the lymph nodes
  • Pelvic exenteration: Removal of the bladder, rectum, lower colon, cervix, ovaries and vagina. A stoma (opening) may have to be created so urine and stool can pass through the colon into an exterior bag. 

Prevention and Screening for Vaginal Cancer

There is no proven way to prevent vaginal cancer, but there are certain steps you can take to lower your risk and certain lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent developing vaginal cancer:

  • Avoid sexual activity with many partners or with a partner who has had multiple partners before
  • Delay sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
  • Do not smoke
  • Have regular Pap tests
  • Practice safe sexual activity