Vaginal cancer: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer that forms in the vaginal tissue of women. About 2,000 women are affected by vaginal cancer in the United States each year.

There are two primary types: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma arises from the squamous cells that line the vagina. It is the most common type of vaginal cancer, and is found most often in women aged 60 years or older.

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.

Fast facts on vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is not a common form of cancer and affects around 2,000 Americans per year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 75 percent of vaginal cancers are associated with HPV.

Black American and Hispanic women more commonly get HPV-related vaginal cancer than women of other races and ethnicities.

One of the first noticeable symptoms of vaginal cancer is bleeding after sex.

Symptoms

[Woman with pelvic pain]
One symptom of vaginal cancer is pelvic pain.

Early stage cancer and precancerous lesions often don’t cause symptoms but are found during a routine exam. Later stage vaginal cancers are more likely to be associated with symptoms.

One of the most common symptoms 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 always be evaluated.

Other symptoms might include:

abnormal vaginal discharge

vaginal mass

difficulty or pain when urinating

constipation

pain during sex

pelvic pain

pain in the back of the legs or leg swelling

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

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Causes

Unfortunately, researchers do not yet know the exact causes of vaginal cancer. They have, however, identified several risk factors for developing vaginal cancer. These risk factors include:

Age – those aged over 60 are at most risk.

HPV infection – contracting the human papilloma virus increases risk.

Hysterectomy – women who have had a hysterectomy are statistically more likely to get vaginal cancer.

A history of cervical cancer – cervical cancer diagnosis is a risk factor for vaginal cancer.

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 picked up on a Pap smear test.

Exposure to the synthetic hormone Diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the womb can increase risk. This drug was taken by mothers from the 1940s until 1971. As a result, the cases attributed to DES are on the decline as children born from those pregnancies are now in their late 40s or older.

Treatment

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