- Vaginal cancer
What is vaginal cancer?
Primary vaginal cancer is any cancer that starts in the vagina. There are several types. Some cancers of the vagina have spread from a cancer elsewhere in the body. These are called secondary vaginal cancers.
Learn more about:
- The vagina
- Who gets vaginal cancer?
- Types of primary vaginal cancer
- Secondary vaginal cancer
- What causes vaginal cancer?
The vagina is part of the female reproductive system, which also includes the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vulva.
Sometimes called the birth canal, the vagina is a muscular channel about 7–10 cm long that extends down from the cervix (neck of the uterus) to the vulva. The vaginal opening is where menstrual blood flows out of the body, sexual intercourse occurs, and a baby is born.
The vulva is a general term for a woman’s external sexual organs (genitals).
The main parts of the vulva are the:
- mons pubis – the soft, fatty mound of tissue covered with pubic hair, above the labia
- labia majora – two large, outer fleshy lips, which surround the inner lips known as labia minora
- labia minora – two inner lips (may be smaller or thinner than the labia majora)
- clitoris – the main organ for sexual pleasure in women. It is located where the labia minora join at the top of the vulva. During arousal, the clitoris fills with blood and becomes erect, and its stimulation can lead to sexual climax (orgasm)
- Bartholin glands – two small glands near the opening of the vagina. They produce mucus to lubricate the vagina.
Urethra, anus and perineum
Below the clitoris is the urethra, for passing urine. Further down is the entrance to the vagina, and behind that is the anus. The area of skin between the vagina and the anus is called the perineum.
Female sexual anatomy
Who gets vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest types of cancer affecting the female reproductive system (gynaecological cancer). Each year in Australia, about 80 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and it is more common in women over 60. However, vaginal cancer, particularly adenocarcinoma, can sometimes occur in younger women.
Types of primary vaginal cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
- starts in the thin, flat (squamous) cells lining the vagina
- most likely to occur in the upper vagina
- usually grows slowly over many years
- makes up about 85% of vaginal cancers
- develops from the mucus-producing (glandular) cells of the vagina
- more likely to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes
- makes up 5–10% of vaginal cancers
- includes clear cell carcinoma
Vaginal (mucosal) melanoma
- starts in the cells that give the skin its colour (melanocytes), also found in the vagina’s lining
- a rare form of vaginal cancer
- develops from muscle, fat and other tissue deep in the wall of the vagina
- a rare form of vaginal cancer
Secondary vaginal cancer
Secondary cancer in the vagina is more common than primary vaginal cancer. This means the cancer has spread from another part of the body, such as the cervix, uterus, vulva, bladder, bowel or other nearby organs. Secondary vaginal cancer is managed differently to primary vaginal cancer.
What causes vaginal cancer?
The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown, but factors known to increase the risk of developing it include:
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
This is a precancerous condition that often has no symptoms. It means that the cells in the lining of the vagina are abnormal and may develop into cancer after many years. However, most women with VAIN do not develop vaginal cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Also known as the wart virus, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause women to develop VAIN. It can be many years between the initial infection with HPV and the first signs of VAIN or vaginal cancer. HPV is a common virus and most women with HPV don’t develop vaginal or any other type of cancer.
Cigarette smoking doubles the risk of developing vaginal cancer. This may be because smoking can make the immune system work less effectively.
History of gynaecological cancer
Vaginal cancer is more likely to be diagnosed in women who have had cervical cancer or early cervical cell changes that were considered to be precancerous. For more on this, see Cervical cancer.
Radiation therapy to the pelvis
If you have had radiation therapy to the pelvis for another reason, you are at a slightly higher risk of vaginal cancer. This complication is very rare.
This synthetic hormone drug has been identified as a cause of a type of vaginal adenocarcinoma called clear cell carcinoma.
Between 1938 and 1971 – and occasionally beyond – DES was prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. It is no longer prescribed to pregnant women in Australia.
The female children of women who took DES (called DES daughters) have an increased risk of developing a range of health problems. About one in 1000 DES daughters develops clear cell carcinoma of the vagina or cervix. If you are concerned about this risk, see your GP.
|Vaginal cancer is not contagious and it can’t be passed to other people through sexual contact. It is not caused by an inherited faulty gene. For more on the risk factors, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.|
Prof Jonathan Carter, Director, Gynaecological Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and Professor of Gynaecological Oncology, The University of Sydney, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gynaecological Cancer Centre, The Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Dr Dani Bullen, Clinical Psychologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Wendy Cram, Consumer; Dr Tiffany Daly, Senior Radiation Oncologist, Radiation Oncology Princess Alexandra Raymond Terrace (ROPART), South Brisbane, QLD; Kim Hobbs, Clinical Specialist Social Worker, Westmead Centre for Gynaecological Cancer, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Anya Traill, Head of Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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