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Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is a rare disease and makes up less than 3 percent of all gynecological cancers. There are four different types of vaginal cancer, including:

  • Squamous Cell Cancer — The most common type, which usually occurs in the upper part of the vagina. It typically affects women between the ages of 50 and 70.
  • Adenocarcinoma — The second most common type. It usually affects women between the ages of 12 and 30, although it occassionally occurs in women of all age groups.
  • Malignant Melanomas Sarcomas — Extremely rare forms of the disease.

It is important to know that even if you have had a hysterectomy, you can still develop vaginal cancer.

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Risk Factors

As with many cancers, the exact cause of vaginal cancer is not known for sure. However, some factors may increase a woman's risk for the disease, including:

  • Smoking
  • Age — women over the age of 50 are most commonly affected by squamous cell vaginal cancer
  • History of cervical cancer
  • Having had a hysterectomy
  • History of genital warts caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • Having had radiation therapy to the pelvic area

In addition, research has shown that young women whose mothers took a drug known as diethylstilbestrol (DES) are at a higher risk for developing the disease. The drug DES was given to pregnant women between 1945 and 1970 to prevent them from having miscarriages.

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In some cases, vaginal cancer may not cause any symptoms and is detected by an abnormal Pap smear. However, some common symptoms of the condition include:

  • Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
  • Difficult or painful urination
  • Pain during intercourse or in the pelvic area

If you are experiencing any symptoms of vaginal cancer or other problems related to your vagina, you should visit a doctor immediately for a definite diagnosis.

Your doctor will begin by asking about any symptoms you may be experiencing, as well as reviewing your medical history and conducting a thorough physical exam. To determine the cause of your symptoms, the following tests may be performed:

  • Pelvic Exam — This test involves feeling the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size.
  • Pap Smear — As part of the pelvic exam, your doctor may conduct a Pap smear. He or she will gently scrape the outside of the cervix and vagina with a small spatula and brush in order to pick up cells, which then can be analyzed for any abnormalities. Some pressure may be felt, but usually no pain.
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Treatment for vaginal cancer typically involves surgery, radiation therapy and possibly chemotherapy. With surgery, some patients may need skin grafts and plastic surgery to make an artificial vagina. Some patients may need more than one type of treatment in combination.

At UCSF Medical Center, a team of cancer specialists and plastic surgeons work together to design the most effective treatment plan for your condition.

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of vaginal cancer. A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following:

  • Laser Surgery — A narrow beam of light is used to kill cancer cells. It may be used for the very earliest stages of when the cancer has been confined to the place of its origin, which is also known as in situ cancer.
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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.