Cancer means an uncontrolled growth of cells in any tissue or organ in our body. When there is an uncontrolled growth of cells in the vagina, also called the birth canal of a woman’s body, it is vaginal cancer. Cancer can be of many types and can spread from some other part of the body or start in the vagina. It is more common in women over the age of 60.
What is vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer is the cancer of the vagina, a muscular tube that connects the outer genitals with the uterus. It generally occurs in the cells which line your vagina. Depending upon their source and site, there are different types of vaginal cancer.
- Squamous cell: The most common type of cancer arises in the cell lining of the vagina closer to the cervix.
- Adenocarcinoma: This type starts in the vaginal glandular cells responsible for making fluids or mucus and is more common in women over 50. It is the second most common type of vaginal cancer.
- Melanoma: A type of cancer occurring in the melanocytes or the colour-producing cells of your vagina. It usually appears on the outer part of the vagina.
- Sarcoma: The type of cancer that occurs in muscle cells of connective tissue cells within the walls of the vagina. It is not visible from the surface.
Vaginal cancer has no noticeable symptoms unless cancer has advanced. Thus, women need to undergo regular checks. Symptoms include-
- Bleeding from the vagina (not related to menstruation)
- Watery discharge from the vagina
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- Pain during intercourse
- Bleeding during or after intercourse
- Abnormal mass or lumps in the vaginal area
- Pain while urinating
- Pain in the pelvic region
Above mentioned symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have vaginal cancer. It could be just another vaginal infection. What is important is that you have to get it checked out by a doctor.
What causes vaginal cancer?
It is still unclear what causes vaginal cancer. In cancer, normal cells undergo mutation, turning them into abnormal cells. Usually, normal cells grow and die at a preset time. However, in cancer, the cells grow and multiply but do not die, thus forming lumps or tumors. They further spread in other regions of the body by breaking from the parent tumor mass. Some causes are as follows-
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): This virus gets contracted through sexually transmitted infection leading to cervical or vaginal cancer.
- Herpes simplex virus: Herpes is also a viral infection. Women infected with herpes are at risk for vaginal cancer.
- Diethylstilbestrol: Women were prescribed diethylstilbestrol before the 1970s as an agent which prevents miscarriage. These women were at a high risk of developing vaginal or cervical cancer later in their life. Nowadays, it is rare for women to have cancer because diethylstilbestrol was banned in the 1970s.
Vaginal Intraepithelial neoplasia: It is a rare condition where you have unusual cells in your vagina. Atypical cells in the vagina called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia. Being diagnosed with vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) increases your risk of vaginal cancer.
Some general causes which lead to vaginal cancer are-
- Age older than 60
- Alcohol abuse
- Smoking doubles the chances of women getting vaginal cancer.
- Multiple sex partners
- First intercourse at a very early age.
When to see a doctor
You should contact your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms mentioned above. Also, vaginal cancer does not show any immediate symptoms. Therefore, it is vital to get yourself checked regularly and undergo pelvic exams.
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Generally, doctors will study your medical history and then go for different tests and exams including-
- Pelvic exam
- Pap smear test – To find any abnormal cells in the vaginal lining.
- Colposcopy – If they find any abnormal cells, they will examine the cells closely with the colposcope.
- Biopsy- A sample of your vaginal cells gets taken and sent to labs to determine any cancerous growth.
- The doctor can also prescribe some other tests like MRI, CT scan, or PET scan to determine whether cancer has spread to any other part of the body.
Once your doctor diagnoses Vaginal cancer, further imaging studies get done to determine the spread of cancer to other tissues. It will also help the doctor to decide at what stage the cancer is-
- Stage I- Cancer is restricted just to the vaginal wall
- Stage II- Cancer has spread to the tissues around the vaginal area
- Stage III- Cancer has spread to the wall of the pelvis
- Stage IV(a)- Cancer has spread to the bladder wall and lining of the rectum
- Stage IV(b)- Cancer has spread to other major organs like lungs, kidneys, liver, or bones.
How to prevent Vaginal Cancer
Few methods can reduce the chances of vaginal cancer development. They are-
- Routine pelvic exams
- HPV vaccine
- Do not smoke or quit smoking
- Drink moderately
- Protected sex
Complications associated with vaginal cancer can spread to other parts of the body to major organs like the lungs and liver. Once cancer reaches this stage, it is incurable.
Treatment of Vaginal cancer
- Surgery-If the cancer is at stage I, the lumps or the tumor can get removed surgically.
- Chemotherapy- Chemotherapy may be used during radiation therapy to enhance the effectiveness of radiation.
- The early diagnosis of vaginal cancer can help with successful treatment with full recovery and healthy life.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
I have spotting between my period cycles. Does it mean I have vaginal cancer?
Spotting in between your period cycles can mean various things like cysts, hormonal imbalances or any other infection. It is vital to get it checked with your healthcare provider.
I experience pain after sex in the pelvic region. Does it mean I have vaginal cancer?
Pain in the pelvic region after sex can mean different things. It can be because of infection also. Either way, get it checked with your healthcare provider.
Does the HPV vaccine guarantee prevention of vaginal cancer?
Human papillomavirus is one of the causes of vaginal cancer. The HPV vaccine will guarantee that you do not contract Human papillomavirus.