Vaginal cancer: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Vaginal cancer is a rare kind of cancer that develops in the vaginal tissue of women. About 2,000 women are affected by vaginal cancer in the United States every year.

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There are two primary types: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the squamous cells that line the vagina. It is the most common type of vaginal cancer.

Vaginal adenocarcinoma arises from the glandular cells in the lining of the vagina that produce some of the vaginal fluids. Adenocarcinoma is more likely to spread than squamous cell cancer.

Symptoms

One of the most common symptoms of late stage vaginal cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse. It is often one of the first symptoms to be noticed. Vaginal bleeding in women after menopause is abnormal and should be examined by a doctor.

Other symptoms might include:

If an individual displays any of these symptoms, they should make an appointment with their doctor right away.

Causes

The exact cause of vaginal cancer remains unknown. However, researchers identified several risk factors for developing vaginal cancer. They include:

  • HPV infection– risk is increased if a woman has contracted the human papilloma virus.
  • Hysterectomy– women who have had a hysterectomy are statistically more likely to get vaginal cancer.
  • A history of cervical cancer– cervical cancer increases risk for vaginal cancer.
  • Age– those aged over 60 are at most risk.
  • Previous radiation treatment– this can sometimes cause an increased likelihood of vaginal cancer.
  • Use of a vaginal pessary– use of these, such as during pelvic organ prolapse, is associated with an increase in risk.
  • Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)– these cells are different from normal cells, but not different enough to be classed as cancer cells. Sometimes, these cells can develop into cancer.

Many types of cancer caused by HPV, including vaginal and cervical cancer, are associated with precancerous lesions. These develop before the cancer and can be detected on a Pap smear test.

Diagnosis

Doctors will ask about any symptoms the female might be having, including:

  • medications
  • sexual practices and family history will also be discussed

The examination will include:

  • Pelvic exam – the doctor will look and feel for abnormalities.
  • Pap smear – a test for cervical cancer.
  • Colposcopy (examination of the cervix) – may be carried out if the Pap test was abnormal.

To make a conclusive diagnosis, a biopsy is required. During a biopsy, small tissue samples are taken and studied by a pathologist. Biopsies are commonly carried out during a colposcopy. A local anesthetic is used to ease discomfort and pain. If vaginal cancer is confirmed, several more tests will be completed to determine the stage of the cancer to help in treatment.

Prevention

The best way a woman can reduce her risk factor for developing vaginal cancer is to try to avoid being infected with HPV which is a very common sexually transmitted virus. About 80 percent of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their life.

HPV can cause many types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Researchers believe there may be a link between vaginal cancer and HPV.

Other factors that can help prevent vaginal cancer include:

  • Not having sexual intercourse until late teens or older.
  • Avoiding sex with multiple partners.
  • Practicing safe sex (although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV).
  • Having regular Pap tests for early detection and treatment.
  • Stopping smoking, or not starting in the first place.

Treatment

Cancer treatment can involve radiation or chemotherapy. While these are standard methods of treatment in many types of cancer, before any treatment schedule, a patient should understand what to expect, possible side effects, and the risks and benefits of treatment.

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Surgery is sometimes used to remove the cancer, but most patients are treated with radiation. Radiation and chemotherapy are often carried out if the tumor is cervical cancer that has spread to the vagina.

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