Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that occurs in the vagina (the muscular tube that connects the uterus with the outer genitals). This type of cancer develops in the cells that line the surface of the vagina and most commonly occurs in women of ages 60 or older. There are two main types of vaginal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in squamous cells (thin, flat cells lining the vagina). This is the most common type of cancer and it is found in women who are of 60 years and older.
- Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that forms in the glandular cells (make and release fluids such as mucus). This type of cancer is found in women who are of 30 years or younger.
Vaginal cancer can spread to other areas of the body, making it more difficult to treat; however, with proper medical attention and care, a cure is possible.
The most common symptom of vaginal cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Other signs and symptoms of vaginal cancer can include:
- Pelvic pain
- Vaginal lump
- Painful urination
- Blood in the urine
- Watery or foul smelling discharge from the vagina
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Swelling in the legs
Although it is not clear what causes vaginal cancer, cancer in general begins when healthy cells take on a genetic mutation, grow and multiply out of control and are turned into abnormal cells. The formation of a collection of abnormal cells in turn forms a mass known as a tumor. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissues and break away from the original tumor to spread to other areas of the body.
Several factors that may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer include:
- Aging (aged 60 or older)
- History of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
- Prior experience to DES (miscarriage prevention drug)
- Having multiple sexual partners (sexually transmitted disease)
- HIV infection
A complication that can arise from vaginal cancer is the possibility of the cancer spreading to other regions of the body, such as the lungs, liver and bones. If this occurs, treatment can be made more difficult and may require immediate medical attention.
A few recommendations for preventing vaginal cancer include:
- Quitting smoking
- Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection
- Delaying first sexual encounter until late teens or older
- Practicing safe sex (using condoms during sexual intercourse)
- Avoiding sexual intercourse with multiple partners
- Undergoing routine pelvic examinations and Pap tests
- Treating pre-cancerous conditions