Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects women. This form of cancer develops in the vagina – the organ connecting the cervix at the low point of the uterus to the vulva – when cells in the body begin growing uncontrollably. While vaginal cancer can affect women of any age, it is most common among women over the age of 60.
Vaginal cancer symptoms
When it is in its early stages or confined to the lining of the vagina, vaginal cancer might not produce any symptoms. Invasive vaginal cancer that has spread to nearby tissues, however, may cause one or more of the following symptoms:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (commonly following intercourse)
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- A palpable lump in the vagina
- Pain during intercourse
Once vaginal cancer has advanced and spread beyond the vagina, it may produce other symptoms, including constipation, painful urination, back pain, leg swelling and pelvic or low abdominal pain.
What causes vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer occurs when healthy cells begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably, forming a tumor that can spread to surrounding tissues. As for exactly what causes these healthy cells to undergo these changes, research is still unclear. Scientists have, however, identified several factors that increase a woman’s risk for developing vaginal cancer. For instance, women who have the human papillomavirus (HPV) or have been infected with herpes simplex virus are known to have an increased risk for vaginal cancer. Another strong risk factor is fetal exposure to a medication called diethylstilbestrol (DES). Women with a history of abnormal cells or cancer in the uterus or cervix are at a higher risk for developing vaginal cancer, as well.
Types of vaginal cancer
Primary vaginal cancer originates in the vagina, as opposed to secondary, or metastatic, cancer that spreads to the vagina from other parts of the body (such as the cervix, rectum, uterus or bladder). There are several types of primary vaginal cancer, which form in different types of cells in the vagina.
The four main types of vaginal cancer include:
- Squamous cell carcinoma. About 90% of vaginal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which develop in the squamous cells in the lining of the vagina.
- Adenocarcinoma. Vaginal cancers that are adenocarcinomas originate in gland cells. Clear cell adenocarcinoma is a subtype that occurs in women who were exposed to the medication diethylstilbestrol (DES) through their mothers while in the womb.
- Melanoma. Melanoma is a very rare form of vaginal cancer, as it far more commonly found on parts of the skin that are exposed to the sun. Melanoma forms in the pigment-producing cells of the skin.
- Sarcoma. Another extremely rare form of vaginal cancer, sarcoma develops deep in the wall of the vagina, as opposed to its surface. There are several types of sarcoma that can occur in the vagina, such as rhabdomyosarcoma and leiomyosarcoma.
Pre-cancers involve abnormal cells that have not yet become cancerous but could, over time. Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) occurs when abnormal cells are found in the innermost layer of the vagina. Of the three types of VAIN – VAIN1, VAIN2 and VAIN3 – VAIN3 is most similar to true cancer. If left untreated, VAIN can sometimes become cancer.
How Moffitt doctors approach treating vaginal cancer
At Moffitt Cancer Center, we understand that a woman who is facing a suspected or confirmed diagnosis of vaginal cancer might feel frightened, confused, overwhelmed or a combination of all of these emotions. The compassionate, multispecialty team in our gynecologic clinic is here to help. We offer all aspects of cancer diagnosis, treatment and support in a single, convenient location. For instance, our patients with vaginal cancer can benefit from:
- Multiple expert opinions. By taking a multispecialty approach to cancer treatment, Moffitt offers patients the peace of mind of working with an entire team of experts instead of a single physician. Our team includes experienced gynecologic oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, plastic surgeons, radiation oncologists, reproductive endocrinologists, nurses and supportive care specialists. Every week, this collaborative tumor board meets to review and discuss each patient’s case and refine the patient’s treatment plan as needed.
- Highly advanced treatments. Our surgeons perform a variety of procedures designed to address vaginal cancer, including laser surgeries, wide local excisions, vaginectomies, total hysterectomies, lymph node dissections and pelvic exenterations. We also offer the latest options in radiation therapy and chemotherapy, as well as a wide variety of services to support reproductive health and overall wellness, such as fertility preservation strategies and yoga, massage and nutrition counseling.
- Nationally recognized research. As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt is well respected for its cancer research breakthroughs and continues to develop and evaluate new therapies for vaginal cancer every day. We also offer our patients access to a robust portfolio of clinical trials through which they can be among the first patients to benefit from promising new treatment options.
For these reasons and more, Moffitt is redefining how gynecologic cancers are diagnosed and treated. For more information or to meet with a vaginal cancer doctor, call 1-888-663-3488 or request an appointment by completing a new patient registration form online. You do not need a referral to meet with us.