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Vaginal cancer is an uncommon disease in which cancer cells grow from the cells of the vaginal lining. The vagina is a tube that connects the vulva (external female genitals) to the cervix (lower end of the uterus). The vagina is also called the “birth canal.”
Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case, vaginal cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor, forms. The term cancer refers to
malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. A
does not invade or spread.
There are several types of vaginal cancer:
Squamous cell carcinoma—occurs in the lining of the vagina
Adenocarcinoma—occurs in the area of the vagina lined with cells similar to those in the glands of the cervix and uterus
A special type of this cancer, called clear cell adenocarcinoma, occurs in women who were exposed to a drug called
(DES) while in their mother’s womb.
This drug was introduced in the late 1930s and no longer used after 1971, so the incidence of this particular type of adenocarcinoma is expected to decline.
Melanoma—usually affects lower or outer portion of the vagina
Sarcoma—forms deep in the walls of the vagina, not on the surface
Once vaginal cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body. Treatments for vaginal cancer depend on the stage of the cancer.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:
the use of high-dose radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is usually directed at the tumor from a source outside the body. In some cases, radioactive material may be temporarily placed near the tumor to expose the cancerous cells to a constant level of radiation. This is called an implant and generally requires a short hospital stay. Other radiation treatments are outpatient.
This involves the surgical removal of a cancerous tumor and nearby tissues, and possibly lymph nodes. Depending on how far the cancer has spread outside the vagina, the doctor may remove the vagina, cervix, uterus, and sometimes the bladder, rectum, and parts of the colon.
is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. This treatment may be given as a topical cream, pill, or intravenous injection. Except for topical creams, in which the drug is applied directly on the walls of the vagina, chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.
While a Pap smear is an effective screening tool for cervical cancer, it cannot be relied upon to detect vaginal cancer. However, regular gynecologic exams may reduce the risk of death from vaginal cancer by providing your doctor with the opportunity to detect it earlier. If you were exposed to DES in the womb, tell your doctor so that he can be more aware of your risk for vaginal cancer and take steps to closely monitor you.
There is a
available, called Gardasil, that protects against four types of the
(HPV). Since HPV is associated with certain types of cancer, the vaccine helps to prevent cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina.
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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
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