Vaginal cancer is a rare form of cancer that typically occurs in women who are 60 years of age or older. Be sure to visit your gynecologist for annual pap smears and physical exams, as they are very useful in catching early signs of possible vaginal cancers.
Vaginal cancer occurs when cancerous cells are found in the tissues of the vaginal canal. Also referred to as the “birth canal,” the vaginal canal connects the cervix (opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body. Hence, it is important to treat vaginal cancer as soon as possible, as cancer cells can easily travel to the adjacent pelvic organs and cause more complications.
Causes And Types
So far, there is no definite known cause for primary vaginal cancers, meaning that the origin of the cancer is from the vaginal canal. Often times, the case would be secondary cancer, which means that the cancer cells were from another origin elsewhere on the body other than the vagina.
Cancer of the vagina is divided into four general groups, and they are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of vaginal cancer. Abnormalities usually occur on the lining, or the surface tissues, of the birth canal.
- Adenocarcinoma: While adenocarcinoma also takes place on the surface of the vagina, it is caused in a different type of cells known as the glandular cells.
- Melanoma: This happens when the pigment producing cells of the vagina contracts cancer.
- Sarcoma: This form of cancer is more deeply rooted within the vaginal walls, as it affects the smooth muscles and deeper connective tissues of the vagina.
Signs And Symptoms
Symptoms for vaginal cancer are usually not apparent in the early stages, but can take presence in the later stages. However, if you are experiencing any possible signs for a period of time, be sure to see a doctor so he or she can run the appropriate tests as a precautionary measure.
Possible signs and symptoms of vaginal cancer include:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Unusual vaginal bleeding during menopause
- Suspicious vaginal discharge
- Questionable lumps or growths in your vagina
- Painful urination
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Pelvic pain
Depending on the stage, location, and type of cancer, treatment may vary. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider on all the options that you can seek during treatment.
- Surgery: Surgery consists of removing the cancerous portion. However, the area of removal can vary, as it can be the excision of the tumor only, to removing the vaginal canal, to removing additional pelvic organs.
- Radiation therapy: Depending on the location of the cancer, radiation therapy can be administered externally or internally. For external treatment, the laser beam is swept over the pelvic region to kill cancer cells, while the latter consists of inserting a radiation device into the vaginal canal to kill cancer cells. Both methods may have other side effects, as they will affect the nearby organs and tissues as well.
- Chemotherapy: Although commonly used to treat other forms of cancer, chemotherapy is usually not the first choice of treatment for vaginal cancers.
- Clinical trials: New treatment methods are constantly being tested for effective vaginal cancer treatment. However, these are usually only administered for late stages of cancer, as most of them are not yet approved and may pose many side effects.
Risk Factors And Prevention
Risk factors for vaginal cancer include:
- Women who have multiple sexual partners
- Females who start having sex at an earlier age
- HIV infection (where the immune system may be compromised)
- Abnormal pap smears
- Age (women over 50 years old are more at risk)
- Unprotected sex (other sexually transmitted diseases can increase vaginal abnormal activity)
Fortunately, these risks can be drastically reduced by taking preventative measures against vaginal cancer. They include:
- Annual Pap smear and pelvic exam. This is perhaps the best way for the doctor to keep an eye on your health and detect any early signs of abnormality in the vagina and cervix. Pap tests can also help catch STDS and the HPV virus, which both increase the risk of contracting vaginal or cervical cancers pertinent to women.
- HPV Vaccine. Be sure to ask your doctor about available HPV vaccines and whether you can receive them. These vaccines, administered on three separate visits over a set length of time, can help reduce HPV related cancers, including vaginal cancer.
- Stop smoking. Smoking not only increases the risk of vaginal cancer, but also increases the risk of all cancers in general. You are basically inhaling cancer causing carcinogens straight into your system when smoking.
- Practice safe sex. Use a condom during sexual intercourse or simply increasing knowledge and awareness on sex education can drastically lower the chance of contracting an STD, which in turn, can put you at risk for vaginal cancer.