What is Vaginal Cancer?

By  , Expert Content
Jan 11, 2012

What is vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is a type of cancer (malignancy) that starts in the cells of the vagina. The vagina (also called the birth canal) forms the passage, which leads from the cervix (the opening of uterus) to the outside of the body (opens into the vulva). It functions as a passage for sexual intercourse and the baby during birth (to pass out of the uterus to outside of the body). Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer, which is most often diagnosed in older women (60 years and older).There are several types of vaginal cancers, but the two most common types of vaginal cancer include squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: The inner lining (or epithelium) of the vagina is formed by a layer of flat cells called squamous cells. This layer of cells is also called epithelium (or epithelial lining). Most vaginal cancers start in these squamous cells (thin, flat cells lining the vagina). The cancer progresses gradually and may stay near the vagina for quite some time, but it can spread to distant parts of the body (such as lungs and liver). It is most often diagnosed in women aged 60 or older.
  • Adenocarcinoma: The vaginal wall has glands, which secrete mucus to keep the vaginal lining moist. Some vaginal cancers may start in the glandular (secretory) cells. This type of vaginal cancer is more likely to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes than squamous cell carcinoma. It occurs more often in younger women (aged 30 or younger).

The exact cause of this cancer is not known, but many factors increase your risk of developing vaginal cancer. Some of the risk factors for vaginal cancer include infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, consumption of diethylstilbestrol (DES) by your mother when she was pregnant, history of abnormal cells in the cervix or cervical cancer. Most women with early cancer do not have any symptoms. Some symptoms suggestive of vaginal cancer include unusual vaginal bleeding, vaginal lump, abnormal vaginal discharge etc.

Treatment for vaginal cancer is influenced by several factors such as the stage of cancer, your overall health and the extent of spread of disease. Treatment options include surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. In the earlier stages, the cancer can be cured and less extensive surgery is needed. Your doctor will discuss with you and decide on the best treatment for you.



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