Vaginal cancer (carcinoma of the vagina) is not common and can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are often similar to those of other, less serious diseases and conditions. Several risk factors contribute to the development of vaginal cancer, including a history of radiation exposure and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).
For patients diagnosed with vaginal cancer, our doctors will discuss available treatment options based on individual circumstances. For example, certain treatments may be more or less effective depending on the type and stage of cancer the patient has been diagnosed with.
Vaginal cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the tissues of the vagina. The vagina is a muscular canal that extends from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) to the vulva (the external female genitalia).
Though vaginal cancer is rare, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and risk factors. Treatment options depend on the stage of the disease.
A few different signs of vaginal cancer may be indicative of it. These can include bleeding unrelated to menstruation, abnormal discharge, pain during intercourse, and changes in bathroom habits.
Patients experiencing any of the following symptoms should promptly seek medical attention or make an appointment at the CK Birla hospital as soon as possible:
- Persistent vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Abnormal bleeding after menopause
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- A mass or lump in the vagina
- Changes in urination, such as difficulty urinating or increased frequency
- Inability to empty the bladder completely or incomplete emptying (urinary retention)
- Numbness, tingling, aching, or burning in the legs (possible sciatica)
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Signs of infection like fever, chills or pus from your genitals.
Vaginal cancer is usually caused by HPV, a virus that is passed from person to person through sexual contact. HPV is very common, and most people who have it are unaware they do. In most cases, the body is able to clear the virus on its own. But in some cases, the virus does not go away and can cause changes in the cells of the vagina. These changes can lead to cancer over time.
The other risk factor for vaginal cancer is smoking. The more one smokes, the higher their risk for developing vaginal cancer as well as other cancers, including cancers of the lung, stomach, pancreas, bladder and kidney. Like most cancers, there is no single cause for vaginal cancer. Instead, it develops when several risk factors work together to create a unique situation. Other known causes of vaginal cancer include ultraviolet radiation exposure in women over 40.
Patients experiencing any vaginal bleeding that is abnormal for them, or having any other symptoms of vaginal cancer, must consult a specialists and talk about their symptoms.
At the CK Birla Hospital, our doctors enquire patients about their medical history and perform a physical exam. In some cases, we will align gynecologists’ to the case, who may use different tests to determine the issue.
Here’s how vaginal cancer is diagnosed:
- The first test we may use is called a Pap smear, which checks for cervical changes that could lead to cancer.
- The second test we might use is called a colposcopy, which can show changes on the surface of the cervix or vagina that could be signs of disease. During this procedure, our doctor will look at cells inside your vagina with a magnifying instrument called a colposcope. We may also take small tissue samples (biopsy) from your cervix during this procedure.
These biopsies are sent to the lab for examination under a microscope. Sometimes our doctors use HPV testing as well as look at cells under the microscope to determine the cause.
There are five main stages of vaginal cancer:
- In Stage 0, cancer lies only on the surface of the vagina.
- In stage I, cancer spreads to the underlying tissue of the vagina.
- In stage II, cancer has spread to nearby organs (uterus or ovaries).
- In stage III, cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
- In stage IV, cancer has spread to other organs (eg: lungs or liver).
There are three main types of vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and clear cell carcinoma.
- Squamous cell carcinomas make up most vaginal cancers detected and typically develop in the lining of the vagina.
- Adenocarcinomas are less common and develop in the glandular cells of the vagina.
- Clear cell carcinomas are the least common type of vaginal cancer and tend to occur in younger women.
Early-stage vaginal cancers can often be treated with surgery, while more advanced cancers may require radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Surgery is the most common form of treatment for early-stage vaginal cancer. In this procedure, our surgeon removes the cancerous cells and some nearby tissue that may also contain precancerous cells.
Following surgery, we usually prescribe medication to control any remaining cancer cells in the body. Our doctors may also recommend frequent exams to monitor for any disease recurrence post-surgery.
As another option, our doctors may prescribe external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT). These treatments work by aiming high doses of energy at the tumour site.
Women who undergo EBRT are typically scheduled for several sessions over an extended period of time; IORT is completed in one surgery session.
Women undergoing IORT typically require fewer days off from work than those undergoing EBRT because they do not need to spend time recovering from anesthesia and do not have scars from their operation site.
Finally, if other forms of treatment aren’t working, our doctors may recommend chemotherapy. Chemotherapy involves giving patients chemicals, designed to kill rapidly dividing cells. It works even if surgery isn’t possible, because the patient has metastatic cancer or lymph nodes containing malignant cells.
One downside of chemo is that it can cause temporary hair loss and fatigue. Fortunately, these side effects tend to wear off after six months.
Meanwhile, many drugs used in chemo are designed to avoid damaging healthy cells, so patients should be able to live normally and take care of themselves throughout treatment.
Although there is no guaranteed way to prevent vaginal cancer, there are steps people can take to lower their risk. These include avoiding tobacco products, using condoms during sex, and getting regular Pap tests.
People may also want to consider genetic counselling if they have a family history of cancer. Women who find out they carry the BRCA gene mutation should get more frequent screenings and more detailed examinations, as well as use tamoxifen or other anti-estrogen drugs to reduce their risk. Women with early-stage cancers can often undergo surgery to remove the tumour along with any adjacent lymph nodes that could be infected.
While vaginal cancer is relatively rare, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and risk factors. This type of cancer is most often diagnosed in women over the age of 60, though it can occur at any age.
Other risk factors include a history of smoking, HPV infection, and a family history of cancer. It’s also possible for this cancer to develop after radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatment for another form of cancer. Fortunately, most cases are not fatal as long as they are detected early on and treated quickly. Early diagnosis is key because there are no symptoms associated with vaginal cancer until the disease has progressed too far into the body.
The CK Birla Hospital(R) offers comprehensive treatment options for vaginal cancer. Our team of specialists will work with you to create a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Whether you need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy, we’ll work with you to find a solution. For more information about our services or to discuss your concerns/symptoms regarding vaginal cancer, visit the CK Birla Hospital® or schedule an appointment with Dr Renu Mathur.