What is Vaginal Cancer? How is it Different from Cervical Cancer?

Vaginal cancer is abnormal cell growth in the vagina that spirals out of control. Very few cancers of the vagina are primary cancers, meaning that cancers that appear in the vagina usually started somewhere else. For example, a cancer might appear in the vagina that actually started in the cervix.

What are Signs and Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer?

Like cervical cancer, having an infection caused by one of the many human papillomaviruses (HPV) can cause vaginal cancer. Additionally, research has indicated that women who are 60 and older are more likely to get the disease. Other risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Your mother was prescribed DES (diethylstilbestrol) while she was pregnant with you. Some pregnant women were given this drug to keep them from having miscarriages from 1938 to 1971. However, the drug has been linked to numerous health conditions—including a rare kind of vaginal cancer known as clear cell adenocarcinoma. And while this kind of cancer reached an all-time high in the 1970s, it’s rather rare now.
  • You had a hysterectomy to remove tumors that were not cancerous.

How is Vaginal Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

To find out if you have vaginal cancer, your doctor should review your past medical history and perform a physical exam, but may also use some of the following tests and procedures:

  • Pelvic exam is a procedure that involves examining your cervix, vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and rectum. This exam usually includes a Pap smear.
  • Pap test, or Pap smear, involves taking a sample of your cervical cells for examination under a microscope by pathology.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) testing will detect the presence of high-risk human papillomaviruses known to lead to the development of cancer.
  • Colposcopy is a procedure that uses a scope with a magnifier and light enabling your doctor examine your cervix, vagina, and vulva.
  • Biopsy is a procedure to take a sample of cells or tissue for examination by pathology.

If you do have vaginal cancer, your doctor will run more tests to see if the cancer cells have spread elsewhere in your body, such as:

  • X-ray is a kind of radiation that uses electromagnetic waves to create images—mainly of bones and joints.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan is a diagnostic procedure that creates detailed images of organs and tissue inside the body.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a procedure that uses a combination of radio waves and magnetic fields to create images of organs and tissue inside the body.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan is a technique that creates detailed images of various activities in the body such as blood flow and how the body carries out various chemical reactions.
  • Proctoscopy is a procedure in which doctors examine the anus, rectum, or lower part of the colon using a device called a proctoscope that allows them to examine the tissue in these areas.
  • Cystoscopy is a procedure doctors use to see what’s happening inside your bladder. They insert a device called a cystoscope through the urethra—the tube through which urine passes from the bladder to exit the body—that allows them to examine the tissue of the bladder.
  • Biopsy is a procedure in which doctors remove a piece of tissue from the affected area and send it to a lab to see if the tissue is cancerous.

Vaginal cancer can be treated several ways. The three most common treatments are:

  • Chemotherapy, which treats cancer by using chemical-based drugs that destroy cancer cells
  • Surgery, which removes cancer-causing tumors
  • Radiation, or radiotherapy, which uses targeted, high beams of energy to destroy cancer cells and tumors

However, new treatments are on the horizon, thanks to clinical trials. Examples of these include immunotherapy and radiosensitizers.