Vaginal cancer is a rare form of cancer that begins in your vagina, a tube-like organ that connects the cervix to the vulva. Generally, vaginal cancer occurs in the cells that line the surface of your vagina (squamous cells), which is sometimes called the birth canal. Various forms of cancers can spread to your vagina from other places in your body, but cancer that starts primarily in the vagina is uncommon. Vaginal cancer is more common in women aged 60 and older. It can be classified into three categories based upon different types of cells in the vagina including, squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, melanoma and sarcoma.
Symptoms related to vaginal cancer
Early vaginal cancer may not cause any signs and symptoms which means, signs often appear when the cancer is at an advanced stage. Some of the symptoms include:
Diagnoses and screening for vaginal cancer
- Bleeding from the vagina, often after intercourse, not related to menstruation
- Pain during intercourse
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- A noticeable mass in the vagina
- Painful urination
- Pelvic pain
Vaginal cancer is sometimes found during a routine pelvic exam before signs and symptoms appear. Your doctor will do a pelvic exam where he/she will check your vagina and cervix for abnormalities. Similarly, he may also suggest a pap test which is usually used to screen cervical cancer, but sometimes vaginal cancer cells can be detected. Additionally, your doctor may conduct other procedures to determine whether you have vaginal cancer, such as:
Treatment options for vaginal cancer
- Colposcopy is an examination of your vagina with a special lighted magnifying instrument called a colposcope. It enables your doctor to see any areas of abnormal cells in your vagina.
- Biopsy is a procedure to remove a sample of suspicious tissue to test for cancer cells. Your doctor takes a sample during colposcopy and then sends it to a laboratory for testing.
Treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the type of cell and your age. A young woman who has not yet had children may receive a different type of treatment with the goal of preserving her fertility. Your doctor will determine the best treatment plan for you.
- Removal of small tumors: Cancer restricted to the surface of your vagina may be removed along with certain healthy tissues to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed.
- Removal of the vagina: Removing part of your vagina or your entire vagina may be necessary to remove all of the cancer. In addition, your surgeon may suggest surgery to remove your uterus, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes.
- Removing most of the pelvic organs: This surgery may be an option if cancer has spread throughout your pelvic area or if your vaginal cancer has recurred.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells. There are two ways to deliver radiation, external and internal.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells. But chemotherapy may not as effective against vaginal cancer. For this reason, it is used during radiation therapy to enhance the effectiveness of radiation.