Vaginal Cancer


Vaginal Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer starts in the cells of your vagina. This is also known as the birth canal. The vagina is the hollow, tube-like passageway between the bottom part of your uterus (cervix) and the outside of your body. It's the passageway through which fluid passes out of the body during menstrual periods.

Types of vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer starts in the cells of your vagina, also known as the birth canal. The vagina is a hollow, tube-like passageway between the bottom part of your uterus and the outside of your body.

Most vaginal cancers begin in the lining of your vagina, the epithelium. These are called vaginal squamous cell carcinomas. This type of vaginal cancer develops over many years. It develops from precancerous changes, called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN).

These are other, very rare types of vaginal cancer:

  • Adenocarcinomas, which develop in the glands of your vagina

  • Malignant melanomas, a form of skin cancer, which affect the lower or outer portion of your vagina

  • Sarcomas, which develop deep in the muscular wall of your vagina 

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about vaginal cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer. 

Treatment Options

Vaginal Cancer: Treatment Choices

There are many treatment choices for vaginal cancer. The treatment that's best  for you depends on the results of your lab tests, where the cancer is growing, and if it has spread. Your healthcare provider will also consider your age and overall health, as well as your own preferences. If you want to be pregnant in the future, your cancer care team will consider this, too.

Learning about your treatment options

You may have questions and concerns about your treatment options. You may also want to know how you’ll feel and function after treatment, and if you’ll have to change your normal activities.

The healthcare provider is the best person to answer your questions. He or she can tell you what your treatment choices are, how successful they’re expected to be, and what the risks and side effects are. Your healthcare provider may advise a specific treatment. Or he or she may offer more than one, and ask you which one you’d like to use. It can be hard to make this decision. It is important to take the time you need to make the best decision for you.

Understanding the goals of treatment for vaginal cancer

Treatment may help control or cure vaginal cancer. It can also improve your quality of life by helping to control the symptoms of the disease. The goal of vaginal cancer treatment is to do one or more of these:

  • Remove the main vaginal cancer tumor

  • Kill vaginal cancer cells

  • Stop the growth or spread of vaginal cancer cells

  • Prevent or delay the cancer growing back

  • Ease symptoms of the cancer, such as pain or pressure on organs

Types of treatment for vaginal cancer

There are two main kinds of treatment for vaginal cancer:

  • Local treatments. These remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one part of the body. Surgery and radiation are local treatments.

  • Systemic treatments. These destroy or control cancer cells throughout the whole body. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment.

You may have just one treatment or a combination of these treatments:

  • Surgery. Surgery is used to remove the cancer from your vagina. During surgery, a biopsy may be done on the lymph nodes in the groin and the pelvis. This is where vaginal cancer often spreads (metastasizes). The results of your biopsy will help your healthcare provider see if the cancer has spread. If the cancer has spread, other organs or tissue may need to be removed during surgery, or you may need more treatment after surgery.

  • Radiation therapy. This treatment kills cancer cells with high-energy radiation. The radiation may come from a large machine that directs it into your body. Or radioactive material may be put inside the vagina for a certain amount of time. Healthcare providers often use radiation alone to treat vaginal cancer, especially when it’s smaller. Your healthcare provider may use low-dose chemotherapy along with radiation therapy to help make your treatment work better. You may get radiation treatment after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may be left.

  • Chemotherapy. This is the use of medicines to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is used to shrink the cancer, while also reducing your chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of your body. You may have chemotherapy alone. Or you may have it with radiation to help make the treatment work better.

Clinical trials

Newer types of treatment may be available only through a research study. This is called a clinical trial. Talk with your healthcare provider about what clinical trials may be an option for you.

Making a decision 

Deciding on the best treatment plan may take some time. Talk with your healthcare provider about how much time you can take to explore your options. You may want to get another opinion before deciding on your treatment plan. In fact, some insurance companies may require a second opinion. You also may want to involve your family and friends in this process.


Vaginal Cancer: Symptoms

What are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?

There are often no symptoms in the early stages of vaginal cancer, before cancer has spread. Most cases of this rare cancer are diagnosed in the early stages. Vaginal cancer in later stages may cause symptoms such as:                                                                                                                                                          

  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause 

  • Bleeding that's not related to menstrual periods

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge

  • A lump or growth you can feel

  • Vaginal bleeding after  sex

  • Pain during sex

  • Pain when urinating

  • Constipation

  • Constant pain in the pelvis

When to see your healthcare provider

Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. But it is important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.






Michelle Rowland, MD, PhD

Gynecologic Oncology, Obstetrics and Gynecology

Saint Luke’s Cancer Specialists

With nine practices conveniently located throughout the region, patients can easily find care at a Saint Luke’s Cancer Specialists location close to home.