Vaginal cancer is a type of gynecologic cancer in which malignant cells develop in the vagina. It's a rare form of cancer that commonly found in women over 50 years old. The survival rate varies depending on multiple factors, including the disease stage at the time of diagnosis. As with most types of cancer, it's advisable to keep an eye for physical symptoms and do regular gynecologic exams every year to detect any anomalies as early as possible.
In the sections below, you can learn more about vaginal cancer, including:
Vaginal cancer doesn't usually display early symptoms. Most people find out about it during a pelvic exam or Pap test. Symptoms accompanying vaginal cancer are often confused with those of other conditions. Having said that, if you experience one of the below symptoms, consider seeking advice from a doctor:
Most vaginal cancers are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). However, studies have shown that your risk for vaginal cancer increases depending on a combination of factors. This doesn't mean that not having any risk factors doesn't mean it won't happen to you. Research has shown that regular gynecologic exams can help vaginal cancer, along with other types of gynecologic cancers, to be detected early.
The FDA approves the HPV vaccine Gardasil for vaginal cancer prevention.
Your doctor may use many tests to detect or diagnose vaginal cancer. The most common way vaginal cancer is detected is through a Pap test, or pap swear. During a pap smear, a piece of cotton or a small wooden stick is used to collect cells in the vagina and cervix area. These cells are then analyzed under a microscope for abnormality.
Before a Pap test, your doctor will collect information about your health history and carry out a pelvic exam. During a pelvic exam, your doctor or nurse will inspect your uterus, vagina, rectum, ovaries, and cervix to check for abnormalities such as lumps.
Staging is the process to find out if cancer has spread within the vagina or to other parts of the body. From the information gathered, the gynecologic oncologist can determine the current stage of the disease and come up with an appropriate cancer treatment plan. The following is one way of determining the stage and, therefore, the types of treatment needed.
Your choice of treatment options may depend on the stage and type of cancer, your current health condition, and your care goals. Currently, three standard treatment methods are being used to treat vaginal cancer patients:
Surgery is used to remove all cancer that can be seen from the vagina. Depending on the severity of the condition, patients may undergo surgeries that remove only the affected tissues or have their uterus, ovaries, and vagina removed entirely.
During radiation therapy, high energy x-rays are used to kill cancerous cells or prevent them from growing. If needed, the gynecologic oncologist will usually recommend a combination of external beam radiation and brachytherapy.
In chemotherapy, drugs are used to stop the growth of cancer. Chemo is often given to vaginal cancer patients, along with radiation after surgery is complete. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, either systemic or regional chemotherapy, will be administered. Regional chemotherapy affects only the infected areas. Systemic chemotherapy is often injected into the muscle or taken orally. This way, the drug enters the bloodstream and works its effect on cancer cells throughout the body.
Vaginal cancer can come back to the vagina or other parts of the body after it has been treated; therefore, it's important to carry out regular follow-up tests after cancer treatments conclude.