Vaginal Cancer


Vaginal cancer is any type of cancer that starts in the vagina, sometimes called the birth canal. There are several different types of vaginal cancer, depending on what type of cells the cancer develops in. Most vaginal cancers begin with cell mutations called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). Sometimes these cells can be removed or destroyed before they become cancerous.


Often there are no signs of vaginal cancer until it has spread to other tissue. However, you might experience symptoms such as:

  • Vaginal bleeding after sex
  • A lump that you can feel in your vagina
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain when urinating
  • Pelvic pain
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge


The best screening tools for vaginal cancer are a yearly pelvic exam and Pap test. Your doctor may also suggest a test for the human papilloma virus (HPV). If any of these screenings shows an abnormality, your doctor may perform one or more of the following tests:

Cystoscopy or proctoscopy: Your doctor will insert a thin, lighted tube (called a cytoscope) to check whether cancer has spread to your urethra or bladder. He or she may also insert a tube (called a proctoscope) into your rectum to check for cancer there.


CT (computed tomography): This scan can show the tumor’s precise location, size and involvement with adjacent tissue.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): This scan can show biochemical changes that can signal cancerous tumors, particularly those that have spread.

PET (positron emission tomography): In this procedure, a dye is injected that highlights cancer cells growing in your body, which can then be detected by a special camera.

Biopsy: A small sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope.

Treatment Options

There are many treatments for vaginal cancer, depending on the specific type. 

If you have cell mutations called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN), your doctor will remove a very thin strip of tissue using laser therapy or a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), which uses a thin heated loop with an electrical current. In some cases, topical chemotherapy or other procedures may also be used to treat VAIN mutations.

Surgery: For more advanced or invasive cancers, your doctor will remove your reproductive organs or lymph nodes. Surgery may require one long open incision in your abdomen, a small incision in the top of your vagina, or a series of small incisions in your abdomen. The type and extent of surgery you need depends on the type and stage of your cancer, and may include:

  • Laser surgery: Laser surgery is used for early-stage cancers located on the surface lining of the vagina.
  • Excision: Your surgeon will use a scalpel to remove the cancer and a border of healthy tissue around it. Skin grafting or reconstructive surgery may be necessary afterwards.
  • Vaginectomy: Part (or all) of your vagina is surgically removed, often followed by skin grafting or reconstructive surgery.
  • Vaginal hysterectomy: This is a surgical removal of your uterus, which requires a small incision at the top of your vagina.
  • Radical hysterectomy: A radical hysterectomy involves removing your uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes and ovaries, as well as tissue around your uterus, such as lymph nodes.
  • Lymphadenectomy: Your surgeon will remove the lymph nodes in your groin or pelvis, and then examine them to see if the cancer has spread.
  • Pelvic exenteration: Very rarely, you may require surgery to remove some or all of your reproductive organs, as well as other organs, such as your rectum, bladder or part of your colon. You may then need additional procedures to allow your body to function without the organs that have been removed.
  • Robotic surgery: This minimally invasive procedure is similar to a laparoscopy but uses robotic precision coupled with magnified views and the surgeon's skills to perform a hysterectomy.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend using chemotherapy or radiation before surgery to shrink the tumor, or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. 

Treatments for more advanced vulvar cancer, such as removing your ovaries or uterus, will make you unable to have children. Talk to your doctor if preserving your fertility is important to you. He or she will discuss available options.  

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