The vagina, also called the birth canal, is a muscular tunnel connecting the uterus to the outside of a women’s body. Vaginal cancer can occur when malignant cells form in the muscular tissue of the vagina.
Vaginal cancer is very rare and usually occurs in women who are older than 60. Women may also be at risk if their mothers took a drug called DES (diethylstilbestrol), a drug prescribed during the 1960's to prevent miscarriages. Other risks may include carrying the human papilloma, (HPV), or having a previous abnormal Pap smear.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer
There are not usually noticeable symptoms of vaginal cancer. However,some women do experience symptoms. These may include:
- Abnormal bleeding from the vagina, not like a menstrual flow
- Vaginal lumps
- Pain during intercourse
- Pelvic pain
If vaginal cancer is caught in its early stages, it is very treatable and outcomes can be excellent. If there is a concern, or a biopsy comes back with possible signs of cancer, you will be referred to a gynecological oncologist.
Why can’t my regular gynecologist manage my treatment?
The Johns Hopkins Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service is one of the world leaders in oncology care for women with cancer of the female reproductive tract. Our patients have twice the survival rates of patients of those not treated by a cancer specialist, which is why it is so important to be evaluated by an experienced gynecological oncologist at the onset of disease.
Treatment for vaginal cancer
When evaluated for vaginal cancer, your doctor will take a complete medical and family history as well as perform a pelvic exam to examine the organs of the female reproductive tract for any changes in size or shape. The following tests may be ordered by your doctor to fully evaluate you for vaginal cancer:
- Pap smear. This test includes collecting cells from the cervix and upper vagina. An experienced medical pathologist will then check the cells for any sign of malignancy.
- Colposcopy. This procedure includes examining the vagina and cervix for abnormal growths. A colposcope, a lighted, magnifying instrument, is used and samples from the area are taken using a curette, a spoon-shaped instrument. In some cases, your doctor may perform endocervical curettage, where samples are removed using the curette. These samples are examined by an experienced medical pathologist, who can determine if there are cancerous cells present.
- Biopsy. In this procedure, which can be done in your doctor’s office, your doctor will remove a sample of tissue from the cervix, and possibly the vagina. A pathologist will carefully examine the sample of tissue to check for possibly malignancies and other conditions.
If cancer is found in the biopsy, then your doctor will create an individualized treatment plan for you, involving the whole patient and multidisciplinary care. Our multidisciplinary team of experienced gynecologic oncologists treats vaginal cancer in women with nationally recognized high success rates and outcomes.
Treatment for vaginal cancer may include: