Vaginal cancer is an abnormal growth of malignant (cancerous) cells in the vagina, or birth canal. It develops slowly, with precancerous changes in the vagina that can be treated before they become cancer. It is a relatively rare cancer, affecting about 1 in 1,100 women.
When to Get Help for Vaginal Cancer
One of the risk factors our doctors take into account when deciding to test you for vaginal cancer is whether your mother took a drug called DES in the 1950s to prevent miscarriage. DES increases the risk for developing vaginal cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with a human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, this also puts you at greater risk for vaginal cancer.
It's unusual to experience early symptoms of vaginal cancer. Often, doctors discover it during routine pelvic exams or pap tests. But there are symptoms to watch for, including the following:
- Vaginal bleeding that's not your period
- Painful sex
- Pain in your pelvic region
- A lump in your vagina
- Painful urination
If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your gynecologist or primary care doctor, who may refer you to a gynecologic oncologist.
Vaginal Cancer Care at Rush
Because vaginal cancer tends to develop slowly over several years, precancerous changes can be treated before they become cancer.
Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis
To determine whether you have vaginal cancer, your doctor may perform the following:
- Pelvic exam: Your doctor will insert his or her gloved fingers in the vagina and press the abdomen with the other hand to evaluate the size and shape of the uterus and ovaries.
- Pap test: Your doctor can collect cells from your cervix and vagina using a piece of cotton, brush or small wooden stick. These cells are examined under a microscope to determine if they are abnormal.
- Colposcopy: Your doctor will insert a lighted, magnifying instrument to see if there are abnormal areas in your vagina and cervix. They may also take tissue samples to evaluate under a microscope.
- Biopsy: Your doctor will remove cells or tissues from your vagina and cervix. A pathologist will evaluate these samples under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.
Surgical Treatment for Vaginal Cancer
At Rush, cancer care is tailored to you and your disease. Your treatment will depend on stage (if the cancer has spread or not) and grade (the kind of cancer cells). We'll also take your goals and lifestyle concerns into account.
Once stage and grade have been confirmed, your gynecologic oncologist will develop a treatment plan with you.
Your treatment will most likely include surgery. Types of surgery include the following:
- Laser surgery: Doctors use a knife-like laser beam to remove cancerous tissue and tumors.
- Wide local excision: Doctors surgically remove the cancerous areas as well as surrounding healthy tissue.
- Vaginectomy: Doctors remove part or all of the vagina.
- Total hysterectomy: Doctors remove the uterus and cervix.
- Lymph node dissection (lymphadenectomy): Doctors surgically remove lymph nodes and tissue samples to see if the cancer has spread.
- Pelvic exenteration: Doctors remove the lower colon, rectum, bladder, cervix, vagina, ovaries and sometimes nearby lymph nodes.
- Robotic surgery: Using the da Vinci Surgical System, our surgeons make small incisions and then guide the robot's four arms and small instruments to perform complex surgical procedures. Robotic-assisted surgery can provide you with a number of benefits over traditional surgical approaches. This includes decreased pain, lower likelihood of needing a blood transfusion, shorter hospital stay, smaller incisions and less scarring, and quicker return to normal activity.
Nonsurgical Treatments for Vaginal Cancer
- Topical chemotherapy: If you have squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina, your doctor may prescribe topical chemotherapy, which can be applied to the vagina as a lotion or cream.
- Cancer supportive care: During treatment, you can also explore complementary therapies that can enhance cancer treatments by reducing the mental and physical stresses of cancer and cancer treatments. Our cancer supportive care offers acupuncture, biofeedback, guided imagery, counseling, massage therapy, yoga and more.
Rush Excellence in Vaginal Cancer Care
- Among the best in the U.S. for gynecology and cancer: U.S. News & World Report ranked Rush University Medical Center among the best in the country for both gynecology and cancer carer.
- Caring for you with leading-edge innovation and research: As a principal member of the National Cancer Institute's Gynecology Oncology Group, Rush is a leader in gynecological cancer care and research. This includes giving you access to treatments and clinical trials for vaginal cancer that might not be available elsewhere.
- Expertise in minimally invasive surgery: At Rush, your vaginal cancer will be treated by gynecologic oncologists who are some of the country's leading laparoscopic and robotic surgeons. For instance, Rush University Medical Center was one of the first hospitals in Illinois to use the da Vinci Surgical System. This advanced surgical technology offers a minimally invasive alternative for complex vaginal cancer surgery, so you will experience less pain and can return home the same or next day.
- Survivorship clinic: Our dedicated team of survivorship experts will work with you to create a personalized plan to help you get back to your life and health after vaginal cancer.