National Cancer Institute
Last Modified: June 30, 2005
Cancer of the vagina, a rare kind of cancer in women, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the vagina. The vagina is the passageway through which fluid passes out of the body during menstrual periods and through which a woman has babies. It is also called the "birth canal." The vagina connects the cervix (the opening of the womb or uterus) and the vulva (the folds of skin around the opening to the vagina).
There are two types of cancer of the vagina: squamous cell cancer (squamous carcinoma) and adenocarcinoma. Squamous carcinoma is usually found in women between the ages of 60 and 80. Adenocarcinoma is more often found in women between the ages of 12 and 30.
Young women whose mothers took DES (diethylstilbestrol) are at risk for getting tumors in their vaginas. Some of them get a rare form of cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. The drug DES was given to pregnant women between 1945 and 1970 to keep them from losing their babies (miscarriage).
A doctor may use several tests to see if there is cancer. The doctor will usually begin by giving the patient an internal (pelvic) examination. The doctor will feel for lumps and will then do a Pap smear. Using a piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick, the doctor will gently scrape the outside of the cervix and vagina in order to pick up cells. Some pressure may be felt, but usually with no pain.
If cells that are not normal are found, the doctor will need to cut a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy) out of the vagina and look at it under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells. The doctor should look not only at the vagina, but also at the other organs in the pelvis to see where the cancer started and where it may have spread. The doctor may take an x-ray of the chest to make sure the cancer has not spread to the lungs.
The chance of recovery (prognosis) and choice of treatment depend on the stage of the cancer (whether it is just in the vagina or has spread to other places) and the patient's general state of health.
Once cancer of the vagina has been found (diagnosed), more tests will be done to find out if the cancer has spread from the vagina to other parts of the body (staging). A doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. The following stages are used for cancer of the vagina:
Cancer has spread to the bones of the pelvis. Cancer cells may also have spread to other organs and the lymph nodes in the pelvis. (Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They produce and store cells that fight infection.)
Surgery is the most common treatment of all stages of cancer of the vagina. A doctor may take out the cancer using one of the following:
Radiation therapy uses x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation) or from putting materials that produce radiation (radioisotopes) through thin plastic tubes into the area where the cancer cells are found (internal radiation). Radiation may be used alone or after surgery.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be put into the body by a needle in a vein. Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drugs enter the bloodstream, travel through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the vagina. In treating vaginal cancer, chemotherapy may also be put directly into the vagina itself, which is called intravaginal chemotherapy.
Treatment of cancer of the vagina depends on the stage of the disease, the type of disease, and the patient's age and overall condition.
Standard treatment may be considered because of its effectiveness in patients in past studies, or participation in a clinical trial may be considered. Not all patients are cured with standard therapy and some standard treatments may have more side effects than are desired. For these reasons, clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. Clinical trials are ongoing in most parts of the country for most stages of cancer of the vagina. To learn more about clinical trials, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.
If squamous cancer is found, treatment may be one of the following:
If adenocarcinoma is found, treatment may be one of the following:
If stage IVB cancer of the vagina is found, treatment may be radiation to relieve symptoms such as pain, nausea, vomiting, or abnormal bowel function. Chemotherapy may also be performed. A patient may also choose to participate in a clinical trial.
If the cancer has come back (recurred) and spread past the female organs, a doctor may take out the cervix, uterus, lower colon, rectum, or bladder (exenteration), depending on where the cancer has spread. The doctor may give the patient radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
A patient may also choose to participate in a clinical trial of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Links to the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms were added to this summary.
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