Vaginal cancer is an abnormal mass of cells in the tissues of the birth canal. Female genital cancers are usually rare, with approximately 2,500 cases diagnosed annually.
Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis
Squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that develops in the form of thin, flat cells which appear on tissue, is the most common type of vaginal cancer diagnosed. Another is adenocarcinoma, a form of the disease that develops in the vagina’s glandular cells.
The following tests may be used to diagnose vaginal cancer:
- Physical exam: A doctor may conduct a thorough physical exam, looking for any signs of abnormalities or unusual symptoms. The patient’s medical history will also be examined. A patient with a history of cancer in their family may be at a higher risk of developing the disease.
- Pelvic exam: The doctor will perform an exam of the woman’s reproductive organs to detect any abnormalities or painful areas. A Pap smear is usually done at this time, as well.
- Pap smear: A speculum is inserted into the vagina to collect a sample of cells from the uterus and vagina. The sample is then examined under a microscope to identify any abnormalities.
- Biopsy: A small sample of vaginal tissue is cut away and examined under a microscope to identify any abnormalities. This is usually the most accurate way to diagnose any type of cancer.
- Colposcopy: A colposcope—a long, lighted tube—is inserted into the vagina to detect any abnormalities. In some instances the doctor may collect a tissue sample using a curette (a spoon-shaped instrument) to study under the microscope.
Signs & Symptoms
A standard Pap test given during a woman’s annual exam can detect vaginal cancer. If any of the following symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately:
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge not related to the menstrual cycle
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvis
- A lump or lesion in the vagina
Vaginal Cancer Treatment
A patient’s treatment options depend on the size, location, stage, and type of cancer. Their medical history may also play a factor—for example, a patient who has had a hysterectomy may have different treatment options than another patient who has not had the procedure. If detected and treated early, usually with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of the three, a patient can expect a full recovery.
Vaginal Cancer Outlook
Women who receive early detection and treatment can anticipate a full recovery. Women who ignore their symptoms, or do not receive annual gynecological exams (which can often detect this disease) will have a less successful recovery rate or be more susceptible to a recurrence of the disease.