Table of Contents

Vaginal Cancer

Understanding Vaginal Cancer

Rectal Cancer Treatment, a less common form of gynecological cancer, affects about 250-300 women annually in the UK. It is more frequently diagnosed in women aged over 60, accounting for more than 70% of cases. The vagina, a canal extending from the cervix (the uterus’s opening) to the body’s exterior, also serves as the birth canal during childbirth. Vaginal cancer occurs when there is an alteration in the growth pattern of cells, leading them to replicate abnormally and increase in size. A significant risk factor for developing vaginal cancer is infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Mechanisms of Cancer Dissemination

Cancer can propagate within the body through three primary pathways:

– Tissue Invasion: Cancer cells extend from their original site to surrounding tissues.

– Lymphatic System: Cancer cells enter the lymphatic system and travel through lymph vessels, reaching various body parts.

– Bloodstream: Cancer cells gain access to the bloodstream, allowing them to travel and potentially settle in distant body regions.

Vaginal Intraepithelial Neoplasia (VaIN) and Its Classification

In VaIN, atypical cells are found in the vagina’s inner lining. These cells are precancerous. VaIN is categorized based on the depth of abnormal cells in the vaginal tissue lining:

– VaIN 1: Abnormal cells are in the outer third of the tissue lining.

– VaIN 2: Abnormal cells extend into the outer two-thirds of the tissue lining.

– VaIN 3: Atypical cells are present in over two-thirds of the tissue lining. When VaIN 3 affects the entire thickness of the lining, it is termed carcinoma in situ.

VaIN has the potential to progress into cancer and invade the vaginal wall.

Staging of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is classified into various stages:

– Stage I: Cancer is inside the vaginal wall.

– Stage II: Cancer has spread beyond the vaginal wall to surrounding tissues but hasn’t reached the pelvic wall.

– Stage III: Cancer has spread to the pelvic wall.

– Stage IV: Divided into stages IVA and IVB:

   – Stage IVA: Cancer may have spread to the bladder lining, the rectum lining, or beyond the pelvic area containing the bladder, uterus, ovaries, and cervix.

   – Stage IVB: Cancer has reached distant body parts like the lungs or bones.

Identifying Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer often presents without noticeable symptoms, but when they do occur, they can include:

– An abnormal cervical smear test result, where altered vaginal cells are sometimes detected.

– Persistent itching in the vaginal area.

– Discharge from the vagina that may have an odor or be tinged with blood.

– Discomfort or pain during urination.

– Postmenopausal vaginal bleeding, occurring after the cessation of menstrual periods.

– The presence of a lump inside the vagina.

– Bleeding or discharge that is not associated with regular menstrual cycles.

– Pelvic pain.

– Experiencing constipation.

– Bleeding that occurs between menstrual periods.

Understanding the Primary Varieties of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer primarily manifests in two forms:

– Squamous Cell Carcinoma: This type originates in the flat, thin cells lining the vagina’s interior. It is known for its slow progression and tendency to remain localized near the vagina, though it can eventually spread to the lungs, liver, or bones. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most prevalent form of vaginal cancer.

– Adenocarcinoma: This cancer starts in the glandular cells of the vaginal lining, which are responsible for producing and releasing fluids like mucus. Adenocarcinoma has a higher likelihood than squamous cell cancer of spreading to the lungs and lymph nodes. A specific subtype, clear cell adenocarcinoma, is associated with prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES). Adenocarcinomas unrelated to DES exposure are commonly seen in postmenopausal women.

Factors Increasing the Likelihood of Vaginal Cancer

Risk factors are conditions or behaviors that can elevate the chances of developing a disease like vaginal cancer. It’s important to note that having one or more risk factors doesn’t guarantee the development of vaginal cancer, and conversely, vaginal cancer can occur in individuals without any known risk factors. Discussing your risk with a healthcare provider is advisable. The following factors are known to increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer:

– Age factor: Being 60 years old or older.

– Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection: This virus is particularly associated with squamous cell carcinoma in the vagina.

– Prenatal Exposure to DES: Women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage in the 1950s have a heightened risk, especially for a rare type of vaginal cancer known as clear cell adenocarcinoma. This risk peaked in the mid-1970s and is now exceedingly rare.

– Past Hysterectomy: Undergoing a hysterectomy for benign or cancerous tumors.

– Transgender and Non-Binary Individuals: Those with a vagina or parts of a vagina remaining post-gender affirmation surgery.

– Precancerous Conditions: The presence of precancerous cells in the cervix (CIN) or vagina (VAIN).

– History of Cervical Cancer: Individuals who have had cervical cancer.

– Lupus: This autoimmune disease can affect the risk due to its impact on the immune system.

– HIV or AIDS: Individuals with these conditions are at a higher risk.

– Smoking

– Previous Pelvic Radiation Therapy: Having undergone radiation therapy in the pelvic area.

– History of Uterine Cancer: Especially if treated with radiotherapy.

Understanding these risk factors is crucial for early detection and prevention strategies for vaginal cancer.

Prognosis for Vaginal Cancer

The future outlook for vaginal cancer largely hinges on its stage at diagnosis. Vaginal cancers detected in their early stages generally have a favorable prognosis, with successful treatment outcomes allowing for a return to a normal, full life. However, cancers identified at more advanced stages present greater challenges in treatment and often necessitate continued chemotherapy and other therapies. Therefore, regular gynecological check-ups are crucial, even in the absence of symptoms. It’s vital to consult a healthcare professional promptly if any symptoms arise.

Diagnostic Techniques for Vaginal Cancer

In diagnosing vaginal cancer, besides reviewing your personal and family medical histories and conducting a physical exam, your doctor may employ various tests and procedures:


– Pelvic Examination: This includes inspecting the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. A speculum is used to widen the vagina for examination, and a Pap test is typically performed. The doctor also palpates the uterus and ovaries by inserting lubricated, gloved fingers into the vagina and rectum.


– Pap Smear: This test involves collecting cells from the cervix and vaginal surface using cotton, a brush, or a small stick. The collected cells are then examined microscopically for abnormalities.


– HPV Test: This lab test checks for HPV infection by analyzing DNA or RNA from cervical cells. It’s often conducted using cells obtained from a Pap test, particularly if the Pap test results reveal abnormal cervical cells.


– Colposcopy: A colposcope, a magnifying instrument with a light, is used to examine the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas. Tissue samples may be taken for microscopic analysis.


– Biopsy: If the Pap test indicates abnormal vaginal cells, a biopsy may be performed during colposcopy to extract cells or tissues for microscopic cancer examination.

Staging Process for Vaginal Cancer


Determining if and how far the cancer has spread within the vagina or to other body parts is critical for staging the disease. This aids in planning the treatment. The staging may involve:


– Chest X-ray: This imaging test looks at the organs and bones within the chest.


– CT Scan: This involves taking detailed internal body pictures from various angles using a computer-linked x-ray machine. A dye might be used to enhance organ or tissue visibility.


– MRI: This technique uses a magnet and radio waves to create detailed internal body images.


– PET Scan: This test detects malignant tumor cells by injecting a small amount of radioactive glucose and using a PET scanner to create body images, highlighting areas where glucose is used more actively.


– Cystoscopy: A procedure to inspect the bladder and urethra for abnormalities using a cystoscope, a slender instrument with viewing and tissue removal capabilities.


– Proctoscopy: This involves examining the rectum and anus for abnormal areas using a proctoscope.


– Biopsy for Cervical Spread: To check if cancer has spread to the cervix, a tissue sample may be removed for microscopic examination. Both small and larger cone biopsies may be conducted in a doctor’s office or hospital, respectively. A vulva biopsy might also be performed to determine if cancer has spread there.

Influencing Factors on Prognosis and Treatment of Vaginal Cancer

The prognosis of vaginal cancer is influenced by several key factors:

– The cancer’s stage, specifically whether it is confined to the vagina or has spread to other body parts.

– The size of the tumor.

– The tumor cells’ grade, indicating how much they differ from normal cells under microscopic examination.

– The specific location of the cancer within the vagina.

– The presence of any symptoms or signs at the time of diagnosis.


The choice of treatment for vaginal cancer is determined by various considerations:

– The stage and size of the cancer.

– The proximity of the cancer to other organs and the potential for treatment to cause damage.

– The type of tumor cells, such as squamous cells or adenocarcinoma.

– The patient’s surgical history, particularly regarding the presence of a uterus or previous hysterectomy.

– Any prior radiation therapy the patient has received in the pelvic area.

Approaches to Vaginal Cancer Treatment

Vaginal cancer treatment varies based on several factors, with multiple treatment methods available:

– Surgical Treatment

  – Laser Surgery: Utilizes a laser as a surgical tool for precise tissue removal or tumor excision.

  – Wide Local Excision: Involves removing the cancer and some surrounding healthy tissue.

  – Vaginectomy: Entails partial or complete removal of the vagina, sometimes requiring skin grafts for reconstruction.

  – Total Hysterectomy: Involves removing the uterus and cervix through various surgical methods.

  – Lymph Node Dissection: Removing lymph nodes to check for cancer signs.

  – Pelvic Exenteration: Involves removing the lower colon, rectum, bladder, cervix, vagina, and ovaries, along with nearby lymph nodes, and creating stomas for bodily waste. 

– Radiation Therapy

  – External Radiation Therapy: Directs radiation from outside the body to the cancer area.

  – Internal Radiation Therapy: Places radioactive materials near the cancer cells.


– Chemotherapy

  – Systemic Chemotherapy: Administers drugs through oral or intravenous routes to reach cancer cells throughout the body.

  – Regional Chemotherapy: Targets chemotherapy directly to specific areas like the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity.

  – Topical Chemotherapy: Applied directly to the vagina in cases of squamous cell vaginal cancer.

Emerging Treatments and Clinical Trials

– Immunotherapy: Employs the body’s immune system to combat cancer.

– Radiosensitizers: Drugs that increase tumor cells’ sensitivity to radiation therapy.


Treatment by Stages of Vaginal Cancer

– Stage I Squamous Cell Vaginal Cancer: May include external or internal radiation therapy, or surgery like wide local excision or vaginectomy with reconstruction.

– Stage I Vaginal Adenocarcinoma: Could involve surgery such as vaginectomy and hysterectomy with lymph node dissection, possibly followed by radiation therapy.

– Stage II, III, and IVA Vaginal Cancer: Treatment options are similar for both squamous cell cancer and adenocarcinoma, including internal/external radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy with radiation.

– Stage IVB Vaginal Cancer: Focuses on palliative care through radiation therapy and chemotherapy to improve quality of life.


Recurrent Vaginal Cancer Treatment

– May involve pelvic exenteration and radiation therapy, often with treatment regimens similar to those for cervical cancer.

Coping with Cancer Treatment Aftereffects

Cancer treatments can lead to a range of side effects as they can impact healthy cells along with cancerous ones. It’s crucial to communicate any discomfort or side effects to your healthcare providers, as they can offer support and strategies to alleviate these conditions. Here are common side effects associated with cancer treatments:


– Anemia

– Decreased Appetite

– Thrombocytopenia: A tendency to bleed or bruise easily

– Constipation

– Delirium

– Diarrhea

– Swelling, known as Edema

– Fatigue

– Fertility Complications in Males

– Fertility Complications in Females

– Symptoms resembling the flu

– Alopecia: Hair Loss

– Increased Risk of Infection and Low Neutrophil Count (Neutropenia)

– Lymphedema: Swelling in the arms or legs due to lymph fluid buildup

– Cognitive Difficulties Affecting Memory and Focus

– Oral and Pharyngeal Complications

– Nausea and Vomiting

– Peripheral Neuropathy: Nerve Damage

– Inflammation in Organs and Tissues Related to Immunotherapy

– Pain Management

– Issues Affecting Sexual Health in Men

– Sexual Health Concerns in Women

– Alterations in Skin and Nail Appearance

– Insomnia and Other Sleep Disturbances

– Urinary and Bladder Function Issues

Managing these side effects is an integral part of the treatment process, and your medical team can help tailor strategies to improve your comfort and well-being.

Understanding Your Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis

When diagnosed with vaginal cancer, it’s crucial to determine if the cancer originated in the vagina or spread there from other pelvic areas like the uterus or cervix. This distinction significantly influences your treatment plan. The prognosis for vaginal cancer can vary greatly, making personalized and comprehensive care essential.

What is the Likelihood of Overcoming Vaginal Cancer?

The potential for successfully treating vaginal cancer is higher if it’s detected early, particularly at stage 1. In cases where the cancer is diagnosed at a later stage, there are numerous treatment options available that can effectively manage symptoms for an extended period.

Prevention and Survival Statistics of Vaginal Cancer

While there’s no guaranteed method to prevent vaginal cancer, certain actions may help reduce your risk:

– Regular pelvic exams and Pap tests: Early detection through routine exams increases the likelihood of curing vaginal cancer in its initial stages. Discuss with your healthcare provider about the right time to start and the frequency of these tests.

– HPV vaccination: Inquiring about the HPV vaccine is advisable, as it can lower the risk of vaginal and other HPV-related cancers.

– Avoid smoking: Quitting smoking reduces the risk of developing vaginal cancer, and it’s best not to start if you currently don’t smoke.


Survival Rates for Vaginal Cancer in England (2009-2013)

– In the short term, nearly 85% of those diagnosed survive for at least one year post-diagnosis.

– Long-term, about 65% survive for five years or more after being diagnosed.