Vaginal Cancer

What Is Vaginal Cancer? What Causes Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal Cancer is a rare type of gynecologic cancer that forms in the vaginal tissue of women. About 2,000 women are affected in the United States each year and there are two primary types of vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma arises from the thin, flat squamous cells that line the vagina. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer. It is found most often in women aged 60 or older.

Vaginal adenocarcinoma arises from the glandular (secretory) cells in the lining of the vagina that produce some vaginal fluids. Adenocarcinoma is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. It is found most often in women aged 30 or younger.

What are the symptoms or signs of Vaginal Cancer?

A symptom is something the patient senses and describes, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor notice. For example, drowsiness may be a symptom while dilated pupils may be a sign.

In reference to vaginal cancer, abnormal vaginal bleeding presents itself after sexual intercourse and/or in women who have completed menopause. It is the most common symptom of vaginal cancer and is often one of the first symptoms experienced. Postmenopausal and post-coital bleeding are vague symptoms that are also commonly present in many other gynecologic diseases and conditions.

Although vaginal discharge is common in many women and often not a concern, abnormal or unusual vaginal discharge, with or without a blood-tinge or odor, can be symptoms of vaginal cancer. This is incredibly rare, and much more likely to be due to something much less worrisome, but it should be evaluated by a doctor.

A woman may also may be urinating more frequently, and it is important to determine the cause of it. This may be related to an increase in fluid intake, the consumption of caffeinated beverages, or presence of a urinary tract infection, but this can also be caused by more serious conditions. Changes in urination can also include pain during urination and blood in the urine. Though the presence of blood may not always be able to be detected by the naked eye, some women may notice pink tinges/streaks in their panties or when wiping with toilet tissue.

Pelvic pain generally occurs when vaginal cancer has begun to spread. Pelvic pain can be described as pain or pressure felt anywhere in the abdomen below the navel. It may be intermittent or constant. Many women describe pelvic pain as a dull ache that may include sharp pains.

A vaginal mass that can be felt either personally or by a physician can be a symptom of vaginal cancer. There can be several causes of vaginal masses, including vaginal cysts. A biopsy may be necessary to determine if the mass is cancerous or not.
Finally, changes in bowel function can indicate many conditions, including vaginal cancer. As vaginal cancer progresses, women may experience chronic constipation, black/tarry stools, and a feeling as if the bowels have not been completely emptied after having a bowel movement.

What are the causes of Vaginal Cancer?

Unfortunately, at this time, researchers don't know exactly what causes vaginal cancer. They have, however, identified several risk factors for vaginal cancer. A risk factor is an activity or condition that is associated with another illness.

Risk factors for vaginal cancer include being 30 or younger, or 60 and over or being infected with the HPV virus.

In some women, stretching of the pelvic ligaments may cause the uterus to sag into the vagina or even extend outside the vagina. This condition is called uterine prolapse and can be treated by surgery or by wearing a pessary, a device to keep the uterus in place. The use of a vaginal pessary can lead to higher cancer risk and finally, exposure to synthetic hormone DES while in the mother's womb can increase risk.

Diagnosing Vaginal Cancer

In a basic physical exam the patient discloses any symptoms, medications, and family medical history that may be useful.

During a pelvic exam, the doctor will look and feel for abnormalities. During a pelvic exam, a Pap smear is routinely performed.

A colposcopy may be done if the Pap indicated abnormal results or if the doctor saw something that appeared to be abnormal during the Pap smear.

During a biopsy, small tissue samples are taken and then examined by a pathologist. A biopsy is commonly done during a colposcopy. A local anesthetic is used to ease discomfort and pain.

If vaginal cancer is confirmed, several more tests will be done to determine what stage the disease has progressed to.

Everyone's experiences differ when diagnosed with cancer. Coping with a new diagnosis can be difficult, but learning early on how to cope with cancer will provide you with strength and positive outlook you will need during treatment and beyond.

What are the treatment options for Vaginal Cancer?

Cancer treatment can involve one or several different treatments. Radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are standard methods of treatment in many types of cancer.

Before any treatment regimen, a patient should become aware of what to expect, side effects, and the risks and benefits of treatment. The more educated one is about cancer treatment, the better a woman can communicate with your healthcare team and be proactive in treatment decisions.

Surgery is sometimes used to remove the cancer, but most patients are in fact treated with radiation. If the tumor is cervical cancer that has spread to the vagina, then radiation and chemotherapy are both given.

Sarcoma botryoides may be at times treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Sarcoma botryoides are malignant mesenchymomas that form grapelike structures and are most common in the vagina of infants.

Preventing Vaginal Cancer

The best way a woman can reduce her risk factor for developing vaginal cancer is to try to avoid being infected with HPV, a sexually transmitted virus. HPV is an extremely common virus. In fact, about 80% of women are infected by the age of 50.

HPV can cause many types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Researchers believe there may be a link between vaginal cancer and HPV..


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