What is vaginal cancer?
What is vaginal cancer?
Types of vaginal cancer
There are several different types of primary vaginal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma – Develops in the flat, thin cells (known as squamous cells) that line the vagina. It’s the most common type of vaginal cancer, comprising about 85–90% of vaginal cancers.1,2
- Adenocarcinoma – Develops from cells of the vagina that produce mucus (known as glandular cells).2
- Sarcoma – A less common type of vaginal cancer that develops in muscle and tissue in the vaginal wall.2
- bloody vaginal discharge unrelated to periods which may be malodorous
- pain during sex or bleeding after sex
- a lump or swelling in the vagina
- pain in the pelvic area or rectum
- bladder problems such as blood in the urine or needing to urinate a lot
HPV (human papillomavirus) infections are one of the most common cause of vaginal cancer.3 HPV is a sexually transmitted infection.2 However, not everyone with HPV will develop vaginal cancer.2
Cervical screening tests (formerly PAP smears) can help identify HPV infections. It’s recommended that people with a cervix have 5-yearly tests from the age of 25 to 74.4
Other factors that can increase the risk of vaginal cancer may include:
- presence of abnormal cells in the lining of the vagina2
- previous diagnosis of gynaecological cancer2
- people whose mother was given diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy. This artificial form of oestrogen was used between 1939 and 19712,5
The HPV vaccine is one way to help protect against many HPV strains, however it is not the only cause of vaginal cancer, so will not always prevent against this type of cancer.1,2,5
It’s currently given free in Australian secondary schools to children aged 12–13 as part of the National Immunisation Program.6 Ask your GP for more information.
Diagnosing vaginal cancer
Your GP may ask to examine your vagina and your pelvic area.2 They may also refer you to a specialist for further testing or investigation.
Tests may include:
- Cervical Screening Test – a doctor or nurse will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold it open and then take a swab of cells for analysis in a laboratory.
- Colposcopy – Your doctor will use a magnifying device called a colposcope to examine your cervix, vagina and vulva. As with cervical screening, the doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold it open, but the colposcope does not enter your body.
- Biopsy – While the doctor performs a colposcopy, they may also do a biopsy. This procedure involves taking tissue samples from your vagina, usually with a local anaesthetic, and generally takes a few minutes. The samples will be sent to a laboratory for analysis.
If you are diagnosed with vaginal cancer, your doctor will explain which of the four stages you have and how far your cancer has progressed. Stage 1 is the least advanced, and Stage 4 is the most advanced.2 Vaginal cancer may be graded from 1 to 3 according to how quickly it may be expected to grow.2
Treatment options which may be suitable will differ between individuals.1,2 Factors that can influence which treatment options may be suitable include the stage of disease, where the cancer is located and your general health.2 Treatments that may be offered include:
Chemotherapy is an approach to cancer therapy which involves the administration of medicine, usually orally or by injection, which is intended to kill cancer cells or minimise their growth and spread. Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments. In vaginal cancers, it may be given concurrently with radiation therapy.2
Radiation therapy may be offered in the early stages of cancer treatment, or after it has started to spread. Radiation therapy may be used for vaginal cancer where surgery is not possible. It may be delivered as external radiation followed by brachytherapy (internal or adjacent radiation). Chemotherapy may also be given concurrently with external radiation.2
In some cases, all or part of the vagina, uterus, cervix or surrounding tissue can be surgically removed. As well as your clinical circumstances, your doctor is likely to consider your personal preferences when determining whether surgical intervention is suitable for you.2
All cancer treatments may have side effects.2 The type and severity of side effects will vary between individuals.2 You can ask your doctor for detailed information about the side effects which you may experience with any treatment recommended for you.
Suggestions to help you stay well during treatment
- Get as much rest as possible2
- Aim for a wholefood, varied diet, but we also encourage you to eat foods that interest you rather than what you think you should eat7
- Appetite changes are common, and you may experience taste changes or nausea. Help manage this by eating small, frequent meals or snacks7
- Drink lots of water7
- Reach out to support groups and others who have had chemotherapy2
- Ask your team about topical treatments for your skin if you have irritation or pain2
- Stay out of the sun as much as possible throughout your treatment2
- Record your side effects in a diary or journal
- Speak to your doctor about incorporating some gentle exercise into your weekly routine2
- It is important to acknowledge when you are fatigued and rest when you need to2
- Ask for and accept help from family, friends and neighbours2
- Be open with employers about your treatment and discuss flexible working options if you need them2
Learn more about patient care at GenesisCare
We understand that a cancer diagnosis may be life-changing for you. Some of the emotions you may experience can include disbelief, anxiety, sadness, anger, and loneliness.2 Your dedicated care team strive to deliver a personalised care experience by listening, aiming to build your confidence, settling your emotions, and providing evidence-based treatment.
Your care team aim to get to know you as a person. At GenesisCare we believe care should be focused on you, the individual, not the condition. We don't want you to feel alone. our nursing and oncology team are here to help support you before, during, and after your cancer treatment. We are here to help guide you to get the multidisciplinary support you need from experts such as psychologists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists, and dietitians.
Other information, resources and support services are available to assist you during your cancer journey. These include:
Cancer Council Australia
- 13 11 20
Australian Cancer Research Foundation
- 02 9223 7833
In Australia, we have more than 40 oncology centres in metro and regional Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.
Our experienced, specialised doctors offer bespoke, dedicated care aiming to provide the best possible clinical outcomes.
Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.
- Adams TS, Cuello MA. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 2021;155(1):19–27.
- Cancer Council. Understanding vulvar and vaginal cancers: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Available from: https://www.cancer.org.au/assets/pdf/understanding-vulvar-and-vaginal-cancers-booklet (accessed October 2023).
- Alemany L, et al. Eur J Cancer 2014;50(16):2846–2854.
- Australian Government. National Cervical Screening Program: Cervical screening in Australia. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2022/07/national-cervical-screening-program-cervical-screening-in-australia.pdf (accessed October 2023).
- National Cancer Institute. Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure and cancer. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/hormones/des-fact-sheet (accessed October 2023).
- Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/topics/immunisation/vaccines/human-papillomavirus-hpv-immunisation-service (accessed October 2023).
- Cancer Council. Nutrition for people living with cancer: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Available from: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Nutrition-for-People-Living-with-Cancer-2022_2.pdf (accessed October 2023).