Primary vaginal cancer is any cancer that start 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.
On this page you will find information on:
Types of vaginal cancers
The types of vaginal cancers can be primary or secondary.
Primary vaginal cancer
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) – starts in the thin, flat cells that line the vagina. Most likely to occur in the upper vagina. Usually grows slowly over many years. Makes up 85% of vaginal cancers.
- Adenocarcinoma – develops from the mucus-producing (glandular) cells of the vagina. Most 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.
- Sarcoma – 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 other parts 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 more information, see the relevant Cancer Council booklet about the original cancer, and speak to your treatment team.
How common is it
Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest types of cancer affecting the female reproductive system (gynaecological cancer).
Each year in Australia, about 100 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.
What are the risk factors
The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown, but factors known to increase the risk of developing it include:
- Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- History of gynaecological cancer
- Diethylstilboestrol (DES)
What are the symptoms
There are often no obvious symptoms of vaginal cancer. The cancer is sometimes found through a routine Cervical Screening Test.
If symptoms occur, they may include one or more of the following:
- Bloody vaginal discharge not related to your menstrual period, which may have an offensive or unusual smell
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area or rectum
- A lump in the vagina
- Bladder problems, such as blood in urine or passing urine frequently or during the night.
Not everyone with these symptoms has vaginal cancer. Other conditions can also cause these changes, but if you have any symptoms, make an appointment with your GP.
How is vaginal cancer diagnosed
If you have any symptoms, your first step with be to visit your GP who will conduct initial tests. If you need further tests, you will see a specialist such as a gynaecologist or gynaecological oncologist.
The main test used to diagnose vaginal cancer are;
If the tests already described show that you have vaginal cancer, further tests may be needed to find out whether cancer cells have spread. These may include;
Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
What is the treatment
The treatment recommended by your doctor will depend on the results of your tests, the type of cancer, where the cancer is, whether it has spread, and your general health. Treatment may involve radiation therapy, surgery and/or chemotherapy. Most women with vaginal cancer will have radiation therapy because vaginal cancer that is close to the urethra, bladder and rectum is often difficult to remove completely with surgery. Surgery may be used for small cancers found in the upper part of the vagina.
What is the prognosis
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead your doctor can give you an idea of the possible outcomes and common issues that affect women with vaginal cancer.
Some women with vaginal cancer may want to know the statistics for women in similar situations, while others may not find the numbers helpful. Do what feels right for you.
In most cases, the earlier vaginal cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment. Test results, the type of vaginal cancer you have, the rate and depth of tumour growth, how well you respond to treatment, and other factors such as age, fitness and medical history are all important in assessing your prognosis. You will have regular check-ups to see whether the cancer has responded to treatment.
Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.
What support is available
Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer of the vagina, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.
Find out more about:
You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.
For more information on vaginal cancer please refer to these resources
Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancer
If you are a patient, family or friend and would like to order a copy of the Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal cancers, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20