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Vaginal cancer symptoms

Vaginal cancer is a rare but serious kind of cancer in women. There are around 250 new cases of vaginal cancer diagnosed in the UK each year.

The two main types of vaginal cancer are primary vaginal cancer, which originates inside the vagina itself, and secondary vaginal cancer where a cancer has spread from another part of the body.

For primary vaginal cancer, the most common type is squamous cell carcinoma. Less common is adenocarcinoma. Another rare type is melanoma.

Although most cases of vaginal cancer occur in women over 60, a very rare type of vaginal cancer, clear cell adenocarcinoma, can affect teenagers and younger women.

Symptoms of vaginal cancer

Bleeding from the vagina is the most common symptom of vaginal cancer. However, this can have many other causes and is very unlikely to be due to cancer of the vagina. However, seek medical advice if:

  • There is abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods or after sex
  • Vaginal bleeding after the menopause
  • Irregular or heavier periods than normal are experienced
  • Pain when urinating
  • Blood in urine

Diagnosing vaginal cancer

If a doctor rules out other reasons for the symptoms, the next step is usually a referral a gynaecologist for specialist tests.

These may include looking for unusual lumps or swellings during an internal vaginal examination or a colposcopy using a colposcope to look at the inside of the vagina.

If abnormal tissue is suspected, a sample will be taken in a biopsy for testing in a laboratory.

Depending on the outcome of earlier tests, X-rays, CT scans or MRI scans may be recommended.

Risk factors for vaginal cancer

Doctors do not yet know what causes vaginal cancer, but risk factors are believed to include being a smoker, being over 60, having a history of cancer, having a persistent type of human papilloma virus ( HPV) or HIV.

The now banned anti- miscarriage medicine diethylstilbestrol is a known risk factor for vaginal cancer. Use of this treatment in pregnancy was stopped in the 1970s.

Treating vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is treated with a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.

The outlook for someone with vaginal cancer often depends on how far advanced it is at the time it is first diagnosed and the woman's age. Doctors refer to this as staging - where stage one is least advanced and stage four indicates the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis.

Being under 60 and in otherwise good health improves the outlook for women after vaginal cancer treatment.

According to Cancer Research UK, more than half of all women in the UK diagnosed with cancer of the vagina or cancer of the vulva will live for five years or more after diagnosis.

Side effects of treatment for cancer of the vagina may include tiredness, nausea, loss of interest in sex, early menopause in women below the normal age for menopause and fertility problems.

Having treatment for any cancer can be a very emotional time and cancer organisations like Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK may be able to help with support and advice.

Preventing vaginal cancer

Although the exact causes of vaginal cancer are not known, reducing the risk of HPV is thought to help avoid cancer of the vagina.

This includes avoiding HPV through vaccination and practising safer sex.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 31, 2012

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