Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that occurs in your vagina — the muscular tube that connects your uterus with your outer genitals. Vaginal cancer most commonly occurs in the cells that line the surface of your vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal.
While several cancers can spread to your vagina from other places in your body, cancer that begins in your vagina (primary vaginal cancer) is rare. Vaginal cancer comprises only 2 to 3 percent of gynecologic cancers. About 2,400 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
Women with early-stage vaginal cancer have the best chance for a cure. Vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is much more difficult to treat.
Early vaginal cancer may not have any signs and symptoms. As it progresses, vaginal cancer may cause signs and symptoms such as:
Unusual vaginal bleeding, such as after intercourse or after menopause
Watery vaginal discharge that may be bloody and foul smelling
Lump or mass in your vagina
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have any signs and symptoms related to vaginal cancer, such as abnormal vaginal bleeding. Since vaginal cancer doesn't always cause signs and symptoms, follow your doctor's recommendations about when you should have routine pelvic exams.
In general, cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic mutation that turns normal cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don't die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
The majority — 85 to 90 percent — of vaginal cancers begin in the squamous cells. These thin, flat cells line the surface of your vagina. Other less common types of vaginal cancer include:
Vaginal adenocarcinoma, which begins in the glandular cells on the surface of your vagina
Vaginal melanoma, which develops in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) of your vagina
Vaginal sarcoma, which develops in the connective tissue cells or smooth muscles cells in the walls of your vagina
As is the case with many types of cancer, it isn't clear what causes the genetic mutation that leads to vaginal cancer.
Certain factors may raise your risk of vaginal cancer, though women with no known risk factors can also develop vaginal cancer. Risk factors for vaginal cancer include:
Age. Most women who are diagnosed with vaginal cancer are over 60 years old.
Atypical cells in the vagina. Women with vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) have an increased risk of vaginal cancer. In women with VAIN, cells in the vagina appear different from normal cells, but not different enough to be considered cancer. A small number of women with VAIN will eventually develop vaginal cancer, though doctors aren't sure what causes some cases to develop into cancer and others to remain benign.
Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug. Women whose mothers took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have an increased risk of a certain type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. DES was used from the late 1940s until 1971 to prevent miscarriage in early pregnancy.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can increase the risk of vaginal cancer and other cancers. HPV causes the majority of cervical cancers and precancerous changes in the cervix. A vaccine (Gardasil) that prevents some types of HPV is available.
Previous gynecologic cancer. Women who've been treated for a different gynecologic cancer, especially cervical cancer, may have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.
Other risk factors that have been linked to an increased risk of vaginal cancer include:
Multiple sexual partners
Early age at first intercourse
It's important to work on your overall health while you're undergoing cancer treatments and beyond. Eating well, managing stress and getting adequate exercise can all help promote good health.
Good nutrition is especially important for people undergoing cancer treatment. But eating well can be difficult for a time if your treatment includes chemotherapy or radiation therapy. You may feel nauseated or lose your appetite, and foods may taste bland or unpleasant. You may find that the last thing you want to do is plan meals.
Even so, eating well during cancer treatment can help you maintain your stamina and your ability to cope with the side effects of treatments. Good nutrition may also help you prevent infections and remain more active.
Remember these strategies for eating well when you don't feel well:
Eat protein-rich foods. Foods high in protein can help build and repair body tissues. Choices include eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, peanut butter, lean meat, poultry, fish, beans and lentils.
Keep an open mind about the foods you might eat. Something that is unappealing today might taste better to you next week.
When you do feel well, make the most of it. Eat as many healthy foods as you can. Prepare meals that you can easily freeze and reheat. Also look for low-fat frozen dinners and other prepared foods.
Pack calories into the foods you eat. For example, spread butter, jam or honey on bread. Sprinkle foods with chopped nuts.
Eat smaller amounts of food more frequently. If you can't face the thought of a large meal, try eating small amounts of food more often. Keep fruits and vegetables handy for snacking.
Even if you don't feel well, try to stay physically active. A regular, short walk or climbing the stairs can keep your muscles from deteriorating due to lack of use. Exercise can also help prevent fatigue, reduce anxiety and help prevent depression.
In addition, activities that require repetitive movement, such as swimming, can produce a mental state similar to that achieved with meditation. The same is true of yoga and other stretching exercises.