Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that occurs in your vagina — the muscular tube that connects your uterus with your outer genitals. Vaginal cancer most commonly occurs in the cells that line the surface of your vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal.
While several types of cancer can spread to your vagina from other places in your body, cancer that begins in your vagina (primary vaginal cancer) is rare.
Women with early-stage vaginal cancer have the best chance for a cure. Vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is much more difficult to treat.
Vaginal cancer is cancer that occurs in the vagina — the muscular tube that connects the uterus with the outer genitals. ...
Early vaginal cancer may not cause any signs and symptoms. As it progresses, vaginal cancer may cause signs and symptoms such as:
When to see a doctor
Female reproductive system
The ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vagina (vaginal canal) make up the female reproductive system. ...
It's not clear what causes vaginal cancer. In general, cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic mutation that turns normal cells into abnormal cells.
Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don't die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor).
Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
Types of vaginal cancer
Layers of vaginal tissue
Vaginal cancer most commonly begins in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surface of the vagina. Other types of vaginal cancer may occur in other cells on the surface of the vagina or in the ...
Factors that may increase your risk of vaginal cancer include:
Other risk factors that have been linked to an increased risk of vaginal cancer include:
Vaginal cancer may spread (metastasize) to distant areas of your body, such as your lungs, liver and bones.
Preparing for your appointment
Start by making an appointment with your family doctor or a gynecologist if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. If it's determined that you have vaginal cancer, you'll likely be referred to a doctor who specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system (gynecologic oncologist).
Because appointments can be brief and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what you can expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For vaginal cancer, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared in advance, don't hesitate to ask questions as they occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Screening healthy women for vaginal cancer
During a pelvic exam, your doctor carefully inspects the outer genitals, and then inserts two fingers of one hand into your vagina and simultaneously presses the other hand on your abdomen to feel your uterus and ovaries. He or she also inserts a device called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum opens your vaginal canal so that your doctor can check your vagina and cervix for abnormalities.
Your doctor may also do a Pap test. Pap tests are usually used to screen for cervical cancer, but sometimes vaginal cancer cells can be detected on a Pap test.
How often you undergo these screenings depends on your risk factors for cancer and whether you've had abnormal Pap tests in the past. Talk to your doctor about how often you should have these health screenings.
Tests to diagnose vaginal cancer
Once your doctor determines the extent of your cancer, it is assigned a stage. The stages of vaginal cancer are:
In a pelvic exam, your physician inserts two gloved fingers inside your vagina. While simultaneously pressing down on your abdomen, he or she can examine your uterus, ovaries and other organs....
Treatments and drugs
Your treatment options for vaginal cancer depend on several factors, including the type of vaginal cancer you have and its stage. You and your doctor work together to determine what treatments are best for you based on your goals of treatment and the side effects you're willing to endure. Treatment for vaginal cancer typically includes surgery and radiation.
If your vagina is completely removed, you may choose to undergo surgery to construct a new vagina. Surgeons use pieces of skin, sections of intestine or flaps of muscle from other areas of your body to form a new vagina. With some adjustments, a reconstructed vagina allows you to have vaginal intercourse. However, a reconstructed vagina isn't the same as your own vagina. For instance, a reconstructed vagina lacks natural lubrication and creates a different sensation when touched due to changes in surrounding nerves.
Radiation therapy kills quickly growing cancer cells, but it may also damage nearby healthy cells, causing side effects. Side effects of radiation depend on the radiation's intensity and where it's aimed.
Coping and support
Each woman with cancer deals with her diagnosis in her own way. You might want to surround yourself with friends and family, or you may ask for time alone to sort through your feelings. The shock and confusion of your diagnosis may leave you feeling lost and unsure of yourself. To help you cope, try to:
There is no sure way to prevent vaginal cancer. However you may reduce your risk if you:
Last Updated: 2013-04-27
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