Vaginal cancer

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

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

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

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.

For information on treating the original cancer, see our Cancer Types and speak to your treatment team. You may also find information about Advanced cancer useful.

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.

Diethylstilboestrol (DES)

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.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on vulvar and vaginal cancers.

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit:


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit:

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit:

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in October 2018
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