Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer where the proliferation of cancer cells chiefly occurs in the vagina — a muscular tube that connects the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) to the vulva (the outer female genitals). It primarily occurs in the epidermis (composed of epidermal cells) that line the surface of the vagina, a.k.a the birth canal.
While vaginal cancer may occur when several types of cancer that occur in other parts of the body spread to the vagina, primary vaginal cancer (one that begins in your vagina) is rare. But with the latest medical advancements, an early prognosis of vaginal cancer in the early stages has a better shot of dealing with the condition.
Types Of Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer is categorised into different types based on the sort of cell where cancer first began. These include:
Vaginal Squamous Carcinoma: The cancer is one of the most common types and usually begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) that line the surface of the vagina.
Vaginal Adenocarcinoma: Type of vaginal cancer that begins in the glandular cells on the surface of the vagina
Vaginal Melanoma: Type of vaginal cancer where the malignancy starts in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) of the vagina
Vaginal Sarcoma: This type of vaginal cancer mainly develops in the connective tissue cells or muscles cells in the walls of the vagina
Just like any other category of cancer, the exact cause of vaginal cancer is yet unknown. But various studies suggest that it usually occurs when there are certain changes or mutations in the genetic sequence of the DNA strands of the vaginal epidermal cells that turn the healthy cells into abnormal ones. This causes them to multiply and grow rapidly, without perishing and eventually accumulating to form tumorous growths.
Certain causative factors that increase the risk of vaginal cancer include:
Age: It is primarily diagnosed more common in women over the age of 60
Weakened Immune system: An undermined immunity due to organ transplant or people living with chronic diseases such as HIV or AIDS are more at risk of vaginal cancer
Infections: People diagnosed with Human papillomavirus have an aggravated risk of getting diagnosed with this type of cancer too
Other Cancerous Conditions: The likelihoods of vaginal cancer are more in people diagnosed with or who have a family history of vulvar, womb or cervical cancer. Even a precancerous condition like vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia can increase the risk.
Surgery: A history of hysterectomy can increase the risk of vaginal cancer
Unhealthy Habits: Lifestyle choices like smoking can aggravate the risk of vaginal cancer in the later stages
Exposure To DES: DES, chemically termed diethylstilbestrol is a miscarriage prevention drug that used to be prescribed in the 1950s. If your mother took this medication while being pregnant in the 1950s you may have a higher incidence of a certain type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma
Sexual Habits: In case you have or have had multiple sexual partners or had an early age first intercourse, the chances of vaginal cancer are more
The common characteristic symptoms of vaginal cancer include:
- Intense and continuous itching in the vaginal area
- Pain, soreness and inflammation in the vagina
- Change in the colour of the vagina
- Unusual growths or lumps in the vagina that feel rough to touch and may turn red, pink, or white
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge after menopause or intercourse
- Pain while urinating
- Frequent urination
- Vaginal discharge that is watery
- Pelvic pain
Diagnosis And Treatment
If you notice any of the above-mentioned signs and symptoms, do discuss with a gynaecologist or specialist to get it inspected right away and begin the treatment at the earliest. The doctor usually conducts a thorough physical examination, acknowledges the patient’s past medical history followed by administering some diagnostics which include:
- Examination of the pelvis and the vagina
- Pap smear test
- Imaging techniques like Ultrasound, Chest X-ray, CT-scan, or MRI-scan
Staging Of Vaginal Cancer
Stage I: The tumour is quite small and hasn’t dispersed past the vaginal region
Stage II: Cancer has dissipated into the nearby tissues apart from the lymph nodes.
Stage III: The third stage of vaginal cancer marks the spread of cancer cells into the nearby tissues and lymph nodes in the groin region
Stage IV: A progressive stage where the cancer cells have reached the upper part of the vagina, uterus, cervix, urethra, anus, or even distant organs
Treatment options usually depend upon the stage of cancer, and the health of the patient. This includes:
Surgery: This includes ultrasound surgical aspiration or laser surgical technique
Excision: This procedure includes a wide local aspiration technique or radical local excision technique to eliminate the affected tissue
Vaginectomy: This surgical procedure includes Partial or modified radical vaginectomy, Radical vaginectomy, Hysterectomy and Lymphadenectomy
Pelvic Exenteration: This procedure mainly removes the affected vagina and lymph nodes as well as one or more of the nearby organs where cancer has already spread.
- Radiation therapy
- Immunotherapy or Biological therapy
- Supportive Care