What is Vaginal Cancer?
Vaginal cancer occurs when cancer cells grow out of control in the vagina, which connects the uterus with the outer genitals (vulva). Vaginal cancer is rare — cancers that begin in other parts of the body (uterus, bladder, rectum) and spread to the vagina are more common. Most cases of vaginal cancer start in the lining of the vagina.
Stages of Vaginal Cancer
The stage of your vaginal cancer correlates to how advanced the disease is. This helps your doctor decide on the best way to treat it. Vaginal cancer staging ranges from I to IV, with IV being the most advanced form of the disease:
- Stage I: The cancer is localized inside the vagina.
- Stage II: The cancer has spread to tissue surrounding the vagina but has not yet reached the pelvic wall.
- Stage III: The cancer has grown into the pelvic wall.
- Stage IV: In substage IVA, the cancer has grown out of the pelvis and into the bladder or rectum. In stage IVB, the cancer has metastasized to distant organs like the liver or lungs.
Types of Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer is an umbrella term that covers several different forms of the disease. Types of vaginal cancer include:
- Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer—nearly nine in 10 cases of vaginal cancer are squamous cell carcinomas. This cancer begins in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the vagina.
- Vaginal adenocarcinoma. This form of the disease begins in the glandular cells of the vagina and is most common in people over 50.
- Vaginal melanoma. This cancer begins in the melanocytes, pigment-forming cells in the vagina. This type of vaginal cancer is extremely rare.
- Vaginal sarcoma. This rare form of the disease forms in the deep tissue of the vagina rather than the surface, manifesting in connective tissue or muscle.
More to explore
Signs & Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer tumors are small and may not cause symptoms during the early stages. As the disease progresses, it can cause noticeable vaginal cancer symptoms, including:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding that may occur after intercourse or menopause
- Pain during intercourse
- Watery vaginal discharge
- Painful or frequent urination
- A lump in the vagina
- Pelvic pain
What Causes Vaginal Cancer?
Many cases of vaginal cancer have no clear cause, but some cases of vaginal cancer have been linked to an infection of human papillomavirus (HPV). The most common sexually transmitted infection, HPV can go away on its own but if it lingers, can lead to vaginal or cervical cancer.
Several risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing a vaginal cancer, including:
- Age. Most people diagnosed with vaginal cancer are over the age of 60.
- Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES). A hormone drug used in the 1940s–1970s to prevent miscarriage, DES has been linked to vaginal cancer in people whose mothers ingested the drug.
- Smoking and alcohol. Studies have shown these habits are associated with a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer. Smoking doubles the chances of developing the disease.
- Cervical cancer. Having cervical cancer increases the chances of also developing vaginal cancer.
- Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). These abnormal, but not cancerous, cells found in the vagina are associated with an increased risk of developing vaginal cancer. VAIN is often caused by HPV.
While there is no definitive way to avoid developing vaginal cancer, there are a few ways to help reduce the chances, including:
- Leading a healthy lifestyle
- Getting regular pelvic exams and other screenings
- Getting the HPV vaccine
- Avoiding smoking and alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Vaginal Cancer Care
At NewYork-Presbyterian, your vaginal cancer care team will include gynecologic oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurses, and more. Together they discuss your case — taking into account your cancer type, stage, and location, as well as your general health — to customize a plan of treatment just for you. If you’re concerned you may have vaginal cancer, schedule an appointment with one of our specialists today.