Table of Contents
Vaginal cancer occurs when cancerous cells build up in the vagina. The vagina is part of the female reproductive system. It is essentially a tunnel that connects the uterus to the outside of the body through the cervix. The vulva and the labia are located on the outside of the vagina. During sex, the penis enters the vagina, and a baby passes through the vagina when a woman is giving birth. Although vaginal cancer is not a common form of cancer, there are two main types.
The first is squamous cell carcinoma, and the second is adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the squamous cells which line the vagina. Squamous cell carcinoma does not metastasize quickly and tends to stay in the vaginal region. Still, it is possible that it can spread throughout the body to areas such as the lungs the liver, and in some cases, it can even spread to the bone.
It typically occurs over several years because pre-cancerous cells develop first before developing further into cancerous cells. This pre-cancerous stage of the vagina is known as vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia. There are three different types of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia which indicate the vagina’s progression towards cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the more common type of vaginal cancer than adenocarcinoma. It often occurs in the area of the vagina closest to the cervix. Adenocarcinoma also starts in the lining of the vagina but in the glandular cells, not the squamous cells. Glandular cells are an important part of the vagina’s function as they make and release mucus and other types of fluids. Adenocarcinoma can spread quickly and move to other body parts, particularly the lymph nodes. A few other types of cancer might occur in the vagina. Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that typically occurs in areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to the sun.
However, they can appear on internal body parts, including the vagina. These often occur in the outer region of the vagina. Sarcomas are a type of cancer that occurs mostly on the bones, tissue, and muscle. They can occur deep inside the vagina and is the rarest type of vaginal cancer. There are a few different types of vaginal sarcomas. One of the more common ones is rhabdomyosarcoma, and it often occurs in children. Another type of vaginal sarcoma is leiomyosarcoma. This type of cancer occurs most frequently in women who are over the age of 50.
Additionally, some cancers occur in the cervix and vulva. Although these cancers occur near the vagina and, in some cases, even spread to the vagina, they are considered cervical or vulvar cancers and not vaginal cancers. Other types of cancers can spread to the vagina as well.
The majority of vaginal cancers and cervical cancers have some relation to the human papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV. The human papillomavirus has a long history, and the link between the virus and these cancers was first discovered in the mid 20th century.
When scientists were first trying to discover the cause of cervical cancer in the 1950s and the 1960s, they looked at the lifestyles of women with cancer and those without. It turned out that women who began engaging in sexual activity at a younger age and those who had more sexual partners were more likely to develop cervical and vaginal cancers.
This finding caught Doctors and scientists off guard since they already knew that cancer was not contagious in any way. However, it looked like these cancers were acting similarly to sexually transmitted diseases.
One particular scientist who studied viruses, Harold Zur Hausen, realized that it might be a virus that was causing cancer, and that’s why it appeared to be contagious. In addition, Zur Hausen discovered that viruses contained in human genital warts might be the link they were looking for.
He found that the human papillomavirus was present in a large percentage of the cervical cancer samples. As the research continued over the next few years and other scientists worldwide started to study this phenomenon, it became apparent that HPV was present in almost all cervical cancer samples.
In fact, in 1999, a group of researchers tested these samples and found that the human papillomavirus was present in more than 99 percent of the cervical cancer samples! It is actually the strongest cause-and-effect relationship that exists in the cancer research arena today. It turns out that there are more than 100 different types of human papillomavirus.
The good news is that not all of these are directly linked to cervical cancer. Even those strains of the virus that are considered high risk by medical standards do not necessarily cause cancer every single time. If you are able to catch these high-risk strains of the virus earlier, you have a better chance of treating it effectively. Doctors started offering women the opportunity to test for the virus in the 1960s, when this phenomenon was first being discovered. The test is known as a pap smear and is now a common procedure that will take place at your regular gynecologist’s office. Originally, a pap smear only tested for cells that were considered abnormal in the cervix.
However, researchers soon discovered they could re-test some of these abnormal cervical cells to determine if the woman was infected with a strain of the human papillomavirus that is considered high risk.
There are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a woman developing vaginal cancer. A risk factor is not necessarily a direct cause of cancer or any disorder. However, they can have an impact on the development of cancer. It is important to know that just because one of the risk factors applies to you does not mean that you will develop vaginal cancer. On the other hand, it is possible to get vaginal cancer if none of the following risk factors apply to you. Age is considered a risk factor for vaginal cancer, particularly when it comes to squamous cell carcinoma. It most frequently occurs in women between the ages of 50 and 70, and close to half of the women who are diagnosed with this particular form of cancer are already over the age of 70.
Additionally, less than 15 percent of diagnosed cases of squamous cell carcinoma occur in women who are under the age of 40. Exposure to diethylstilbestrol, also referred to as DES, is another common risk factor for vaginal cancer. Diethylstilbestrol is a drug given to many women while they were pregnant between the years of 1940 and 1970 to prevent miscarriages.
It appears that women who were exposed to this drug when their mother was pregnant with them are significantly more likely to develop clear cell adenocarcinoma. However, not every woman exposed to this drug will develop clear cell adenocarcinoma or any type of vaginal cancer. It appears to be especially likely in those women whose mothers took the drug during the first trimester of the pregnancy.
This type of cancer is much more likely to occur in the vagina as opposed to the cervix. Women exposed to diethylstilbestrol are diagnosed with clear cell adenocarcinoma at the average age that women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol are diagnosed with clear cell adenocarcinoma is about 19 years old. The FDA banned this drug in 1971, so many women are past the common age of diagnosis for this type of cancer. However, a woman could really be diagnosed with clear cell adenocarcinoma at any age because the effects of diethylstilbestrol are unknown.
Vaginal adenosis is another risk factor for vaginal cancer. This is a condition that occurs when the vagina is lined by glandular cells as opposed to the squamous cells that typically line the vagina. About 40 percent of women who have already begun menstruating are diagnosed with this particular condition. It occurs in most women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol in the womb.
Having vaginal adenosis can increase your risk of developing clear cell adenocarcinoma, but typically only in women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol. Women with vaginal adenosis who were not exposed to diethylstilbestrol are much less likely to develop clear cell adenocarcinoma. As we previously explained, the human papillomavirus is another common risk factor for vaginal cancer.
It is important to remember that the human papillomavirus can be spread through sexual contact. A large percentage of vaginal cancers can be linked to the human papillomavirus. Cervical cancer itself, as well as cervical dysplasia, also increases the likelihood of being diagnosed with vaginal squamous cell cancer. Lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol and smoking can also increase a woman’s likelihood of getting cancer. Smoking cigarettes can actually make a woman twice as likely to develop vaginal cancer.
It is important to get screened for cervical cancer because early detection is key.
There are no direct screening tests for vaginal or vulvar cancers, so it is important to know early warning signs and symptoms so you can speak to a doctor. If anything feels abnormal to you or you are concerned about a particular vaginal issue, you should speak to your doctor immediately.
It would help if you also were going to the gynecologist for regular check-ups for preventive purposes. There is a simple screening process for cervical cancer, which is an important screening tool because of the link between cervical cancer and other vaginal cancers. A pap smear is a popular cervical cancer screening test. The pap smear tests for abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cervical cancer.
Another common screening tool is the human papillomavirus test. It is recommended that all women between the ages of 21 and 65 get a regular pap smear. However, if you are older than 65 and have had consistently normal pap smear results the last few times you had the test done, your doctor may decide that you do not need the test anymore.
Additionally, if you had your cervix removed, there is obviously no need to get the screening. However, if you are not regularly having sex at the time of your visit to the gynecologist, it is still important to get your pap smear. In some cases, your doctor may do a pelvic exam to check for other issues that are not the same as a pap smear. It is important to speak to your doctor to know exactly what tests are being performed and if you are being screened properly. When performing a pap smear, the doctor uses a tool known as a speculum to expand your vagina. The doctor will then gather mucus and cells from the cervix and the surrounding area to use to test for any abnormalities. The cells are typically placed in a slide and then sent to a laboratory for further analysis and testing.
If you get an HPV test while you are getting the pap smear, those cells will also be sent to the laboratory for follow-up testing. The amount of time it will take to receive your test results can vary depending on several factors. However, it typically will not take longer than three weeks to receive the test results.
In some cases, the test may show that you have abnormal cervical cells, but this does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. Abnormal test results can mean a variety of things. Your doctor will explain the results to you and recommend any follow-up treatment if they feel that is necessary.
It is important to be aware of the symptoms of vaginal cancer, particularly because there is no effective screening exam for it other than the pap smear for cervical cancer. There may actually be no signs or symptoms in the very early stages. However, as cancer progresses, the changes in your body may become more apparent.
More than 80 percent of women with a more advanced level of cancer will experience one or more of the following symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is bleeding from the vagina that is considered out of the ordinary. For example, this bleeding might occur after you had sexual intercourse or when you are going through menopause. If this bleeding did not occur previously during these times, you should definitely consider speaking to your physician.
You may also frequently experience pain when you are engaging in sexual intercourse. You might also experience a watery discharge from the vagina or feel a physical lump or mass that can actually be felt in the vagina. This would be an abnormal discharge from the vagina, so be aware of anything that looks or feels different.
As vaginal cancer advances, you may experience pain when urinating or constipation. At this time, you may also experience pain in the pelvis. Not all women who have advanced cancer will experience these symptoms. It is also possible that you will have pain in your back or in your legs. Your legs may also swell.
These symptoms may go unnoticed because they are not near the vagina, so you may not think it is relevant. This is why it is important to be aware of all symptoms so you can speak to your doctor immediately if anything feels wrong. Many women who experience these symptoms do not wind up having cancer. Many of these symptoms can indicate an infection or another vaginal issue that is not relevant to cancer. However, this should not stop you from seeing your doctor. They will be able to diagnose you and start an effective treatment plan, whether it appears to be cancer or just an infection.
The earlier you start treatment for your vaginal cancer, the better off you will be. However, even after you are diagnosed, being aware of your symptoms is important so your doctor can help relieve any pain you may be experiencing or provide you with better and more effective treatment.
Diagnosis and Stages
If you have any of the above symptoms of vaginal cancer, it is important to see a doctor as soon as you can. They will diagnose you first by performing a pelvic exam. They may also perform a pap smear, a vaginal biopsy, and a colposcopy depending on the symptoms and the situation.
The first thing your doctor will typically do is discuss your symptoms with you and ask questions to find out any risk factors and other information about your medical history. If the initial exam determines that vaginal cancer is possible, your doctor will perform a colposcopy. Your doctor will use a tool known as a colposcope to look at your vagina. They will first place a speculum in the vagina to widen it and then look through the colposcope, which has magnifying lenses, to find any areas of the vagina that may be abnormal. The colposcope will remain outside of your body. If it does appear that there are abnormalities, your doctor will most likely perform a biopsy next.
To perform a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small piece of tissue from the part of your vagina that looks abnormal. The tissue is sent to a laboratory where a specialist will determine if it is cancerous. They will also inform you if it is pre-cancerous and what type of cancer it might be. If the biopsy comes back positive for cancer, you might start to see an oncologist, a doctor specializing in cancer treatment. They will typically recommend X-rays to see if cancer has spread throughout the body. For example, you might have a chest X-ray to check if cancer has spread to the lungs, but that is unlikely unless the cancer is very advanced. You might also have a CT scan or an MRI, which will take pictures of most of your body to see if cancer has spread anywhere.
Another test you might take is a PET scan that tests for cancer cells by injecting your body with the glucose that contains a small bit of radioactivity. Cancer cells react differently to the radioactive substance than other cells, which allows doctors to locate the cancerous cells. You might also need a cystoscopy to check if vaginal cancer has spread to the bladder.
Vaginal cancer is separated into four different numbered stages based on the extent of the tumor, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes, and whether or not it has spread to other organs within the body. There is also stage 0, which occurs when cancer is present but has not spread.
Stage 0 occurs when the cancer is only located in the top layer of the cells that line the vagina.
Cancer has not grown deeper into the vagina in this stage, and it has not spread to any other part of the body.
Stage I occurs when cancer has spread through different layers of the vagina.
However, it is still inside the vagina and has not gone on to various other body parts.
Stage II occurs when cancer spreads to nearby tissue surrounding the vagina.
It has not yet reached the pelvis or any other distant organs. It also has not yet reached the lymph nodes.
You might be diagnosed with Stage III vaginal cancer if it has spread to your nearby lymph nodes and it is in the connective tissue surrounding the vagina, but it has not spread to any distant site on the body.
However, you can also be diagnosed with Stage III vaginal cancer if it has spread to the pelvis walls but not yet to the lymph nodes. In this case, it also cannot have spread to any distant sites.
Stage IV vaginal cancer is divided into Stage IVA and Stage IVB.
Stage IVA is characterized by cancer growing out of the vagina to organs in the area, such as the bladder. It has not yet spread to distant sites.
Stage IVB occurs when cancer has spread to distant sites in the body.
Treatments and Drugs
There are three common ways to treat vaginal cancer. You may also want to try new treatments that are still being tested in clinical trials.
The three most common ways to treat vaginal cancer are chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Chemotherapy is a common course of treatment, particularly when cancer has spread to other parts of the body. There are different types of chemo available to treat vaginal cancer. The treatment method is typically very similar to the treatment method for cervical cancer. You may be given Taxotere, Taxol, Cisplatin, or Carboplatin as your chemo drug. Chemo is often given in conjunction with radiation, particularly when shrinking a tumor before surgery. If you have squamous cell cancer, you may be given topical chemotherapy to apply directly to your vagina. There are several side effects affiliated with chemotherapy. This can include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, sores in the mouth, a low blood count, and a loss of appetite. In addition, due to the low blood count, you may be more susceptible to certain infections. Chemotherapy works by preventing the growth of cancer cells either by destroying them or preventing them from multiplying.
Radiation is another form of treatment. External radiation will use a machine outside of the body to stop the cancer cells. Internal radiation directly injects a radioactive substance into your body near cancer via needles, catheters, or another way.
Surgery is the treatment that doctors recommend most for vaginal cancer. There are several different types of surgeries that you might have as a treatment for your vaginal cancer. Some of the most common include laser surgery, a wide local excision, a vaginectomy, a hysterectomy, as well as removal of the lymph nodes of the pelvis and surrounding areas.
Laser surgery uses a laser to remove an area such as a tumor, similar to a knife. A wide excision would actually use a tool similar to a knife to go in and remove cancer and possibly some of the surrounding areas, depending on whether or not cancer has spread.
A vaginectomy would remove part or all of the vagina depending on where the cancer is in the vagina.
A hysterectomy removes the entire uterus, including the cervix. Then, the uterus can be taken out through the vagina, which is a procedure known as a vaginal hysterectomy.
However, the uterus can also be removed through the stomach in a procedure known as an abdominal hysterectomy. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, you may also need a procedure known as a lymph node dissection. During a lymph node dissection, lymph nodes are removed, and a piece of the tissue is examined further to determine whether or not the cancer is present in this area. If cancer is found in the vaginal lymph nodes, they will most likely be removed as well. If cancer has spread to the surrounding areas, you may elect to remove your colon, bladder, or ovaries. You can also try different treatments, such as enrolling in a clinical trial.
Another option is taking radio sensitizers which help your body react better to radiotherapy.
Coping and Support
It is important to have a proper support system in place when you are diagnosed with vaginal cancer. It is a rare type of cancer, but it is possible to find support groups in your area where you can talk about what you are going through.
The America Cancer Society has several support groups that may help. You can log on to their website and type in your zip code to specifically find support groups that are located in your local area.
They also have a few different online communities where you can find support even if you do not want to go out to a group in person. One of these communities is the Cancer Survivors Network, and another is Mylifeline.org.
The Cancer Survivors Network has discussion boards and forums where you can ask questions and talk to people going through a similar situation. You can also share pictures of yourself and post them to a blog on this particular online community.
My Life Line allows you to post pictures and blogs, as well. However, it can also help cover some of your practical needs. For example, you can get help organizing your meals and finding rides to your treatment on the website.
Your friends, family, and caregivers can also send you messages of love and support on the website, which can be very encouraging during your time of need. Although you may not want to, another thing you may have to consider is the end of life planning. You will want to look into your hospice care options so that you can live as comfortably as possible during the last stages. It is also important to have an advanced health care directive that lets your doctor know about your health care wishes. You may also want to manage your treatment and figure out the financial aspects.
It would help if you chose a treatment team and methods that work for you and what you want. You may also need to find doctors that are within your insurance network depending on the type of insurance you have.
Due to the Affordable Care Act regulations, most insurance companies no longer impose lifetime financial limits on the amount of treatment they cover. This means that as your treatment bills pile up, your insurance company cannot suddenly refuse to pay for them anymore.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
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