What is Vaginal Cancer?
Cancer can develop in any part of the body. Cancer is named based on the part of the body where it is first detected. Vaginal cancer is a very rare type of cancer that forms in a woman’s vagina (sometimes called the “birth canal”). The vagina leads from a woman’s cervix (the opening to the uterus) to the outside of her body. Vaginal cancer is only one of several types of cancer that can develop on a woman’s reproductive organs. The others include cervical, endometrial, ovarian, and vulvar cancer.
Vaginal cancer can be treated and is often cured. It is easiest to treat if it is located only on the vagina and has not spread to any other areas of the body. Like vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer is rare – so rare that together, both vulvar and vaginal cancers account for less than seven percent of all the cancers of the women’s reproductive organs that are diagnosed every year.
Most vaginal cancers form in another part of the body and later spread to the vagina. These cancers are called secondary vaginal cancer. In these cases, the cancer has usually spread from another cancer of the female reproductive system, such as cervical or endometrial cancer. In some very rare cases, cancer can form in the vagina without having spread from another location. If this is the case, the cancer is referred to as primary vaginal cancer.
Cancer cells develop when some cells form mutations that allow them to grow and divide quickly, and go on living when normal cells would die. These cells may spread to nearby tissues and eventually reach other parts of the body.
When vaginal cancer first forms, it develops very slowly, over a period of several years. The development of vaginal cancer actually begins with the formation of precancer. Precancerous cells are cells that are abnormal but still benign. In the vagina, these types of cells are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). (You may also have heard precancerous cells called dysplasia, which is an older word for the same condition.) Although precancerous cells do not themselves pose a danger to a woman’s health, it is still important to treat precancerous conditions in order to prevent these types of cells from developing into cancer.
Once actual cancer cells develop, doctors focus on determining how far the cancer has spread, and on finding out whether or not it has spread to any other parts of the body. There are three ways that cancer can spread in the body. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissue, which is why cancer in one reproductive organ often spreads to another, nearby reproductive organ. Cancer cells can also, in some cases, travel through the lymph system or through the blood to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis. If this happens, cancer may form in another part of the body. But the earlier cancer is detected and treated, the less likely it is that it will spread to another part of the body.
Types of Vaginal Cancers
The most common types of primary vaginal cancer are:
- Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that begins in the cells that line the surface of the vagina. Squamous cells are flat cells that can be found in the outer layers of the skin. This type of cancer develops very slowly, usually in the upper area of the vagina near the cervix, and typically does not produce any symptoms for the first several years. It is usually diagnosed in women over the age of 50, and is typically found in women who have already had cervical cancer. Squamous cell carcinomas account for the vast majority of vaginal cancer cases.
- Adenocarcinoma. This is the next most common type of vaginal cancer. Most women who are diagnosed with this type of cancer are very young. The average age of diagnosis is 19. It is most common in women whose mothers took a drug called DES (diethylstilbestrol) to prevent miscarriage during the first trimester of their pregnancies with their daughters. However, adenocarcinoma can also develop in older women.
- Melanoma. This type of cancer develops from the skin cells that produce pigment and give the skin its color. When melanomas develop in the vagina, they usually appear in the lower or outer portion of the vagina.
- Sarcoma. This type of vaginal cancer is considered a childhood disease. It usually occurs in babies or very young children, and is extremely rare in adult women. Sarcomas do not form on the surface of the vagina, but deep in its wall, in muscle, bone, or connective tissue.
- Some cancers involve both the vagina and the cervix, or both the vagina and the vulva. If this is the case, the cancer is named after the cervix or the vulva, as the most likely place where the cancer originally began to form.