Types of vaginal cancer
The two main types of primary vaginal cancers are named after the cells from which they develop.
Primary vaginal cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer and usually affects women who are 50-70 years old.
Adenocarcinoma is less common and affects young women less than 25 years old, but it can also occur in other age groups.
Other types of vaginal cancer that are very rare include melanoma, small cell carcinoma, sarcoma and lymphoma.
Secondary vaginal cancer
Secondary cancers in the vagina (those that have spread from other parts of the body) are more common than primary vaginal cancer. They usually come from the cervix, the lining of the womb, the vulva or from nearby organs such as the bladder or bowel.
How common is vaginal cancer?
Cancer of the vagina is one of the rarest types of gynaecological cancer. Each year in Australia, approximately 70 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer.
Vaginal cancer causes
As with many cancers, the exact cause of most vaginal cancers is unknown, but research is going on all the time to try to find the cause.
Some factors that increase the risk of vaginal cancer include:
- Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) - This is a precancerous condition of the vagina that is sometimes caused by human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Vaginal adenosis - This condition causes abnormal cells to form in the tissue of the vagina.
- Smoking doubles the risk of developing vaginal cancer
- Being the daughter of a woman who used the drug diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage
- Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV)
- History of gynaecological cancer
- Radiotherapy to the pelvic area
Vaginal cancer symptoms and diagnosis
There are often no obvious symptoms of vaginal cancer. The cancer is sometimes found through a routine Pap smear.
You may have one or more of the following symptoms:
- bloody vaginal discharge not related to your menstrual period, which may have an offensive or unusual odour
- pain during sexual intercourse
- bleeding after sexual intercourse
- pain in the pelvic area
- a lump in the vagina.
Some women also have bladder and bowel problems. You may have blood in your urine or feel the urge to pass urine frequently or during the night. Pain in the rectum can sometimes occur.
The usual tests to diagnose vaginal cancer are:
- Pap smear
The treatment for vaginal cancer depends on:
- General health
- Type of cancer
Treatment may involve radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy. You may have one of these treatments or a combination.
For more information, see Cancer Council Australia's Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal cancers booklet.