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Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is very rare and affects your vagina, which connects the uterus (womb) with your outer genitals. We explain the symptoms and how it’s treated.

What is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer starts in the vagina, the tube connecting your uterus with the folds of skin between your legs (vulva). Other forms of cancer, like cervical cancer, can spread to the vagina. But it’s extremely rare for cancer to start in the vagina.

Vaginal cancer symptoms

Symptoms of vaginal cancer can include:

  • Bleeding after sex or in-between periods
  • Bleeding after the menopause
  • Painful sex
  • Pelvic pain
  • Peeing more often than usual, or pain when you pee
  • A lump in or at the entrance to your vagina
  • Persistent itching in your vagina

Because vaginal cancer is rare, it’s unlikely your symptoms will be vaginal cancer. But if you develop any of the symptoms above, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, as early diagnosis gives you the best chances of successful treatment.

What causes vaginal cancer?

The exact cause of vaginal cancer isn’t known, but some factors can increase your risk of developing it. These include:

  • Age – Vaginal cancer mainly affects women over the age of 60
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) – A group of common infections that can affect the skin and areas, including the inside of your mouth, throat, genital area or anus
  • Weakened immune system – If your immune system is weak, it’s less able to fight off infections like HPV
  • Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) – If HPV stays in the vagina for a long time, it can develop into pre-cancerous changes in the vagina, called VAIN
  • History of cervical cancer – If you’ve had cervical cancer in the last five years, it can increase your risk of developing vaginal cancer

Prevention of vaginal cancer

The HPV vaccination is now offered to all 11- to 13-year-olds. This helps prevent the main HPV infections linked to vaginal cancer and cervical cancer and reduces your risk of developing them later.

Vaginal cancer diagnosis

The doctor will start by looking at your medical history, asking about your symptoms and doing a pelvic examination. If they think it might be vaginal cancer, they’ll refer you to a specialist (gynaecologist) for more tests.

Tests for vaginal cancer can include:

  • Colposcopy – Doctors look inside your vagina with a microscope
  • Biopsy – A small piece of tissue is taken from your vagina for analysis
  • Cervical cell samples – Using the same method used for cervical smear tests, doctors take samples of cells from your cervix

Vaginal cancer treatment

Different treatments are available, and these will depend on the cancer stage and whether it’s spread to other parts of your body.

If vaginal cancer is caught early in, it may be possible to cure it. If it’s more advanced, doctors will look to find the best combination of treatment to help relieve your symptoms.

The main treatments for vaginal cancer are:

  • Radiotherapy – The most commonly-used treatment for vaginal cancer, using high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy – Anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs are used to destroy cancer cells and disrupt their growth. This is often used alongside radiotherapy and may be given if cancer has spread to other parts of the body
  • Surgery – Different types of surgery may be offered in earlier stages of cancer. These include removing part of the vagina, completely removing the vagina or taking away surrounding tissue, like your womb (called a hysterectomy)

Additional support

Being diagnosed with cancer can be difficult for you and those close to you. Having vaginal cancer can significantly impact your sex life and affect relationships as a result. But there’s a range of support available to help you through these issues.

Talk to a doctor about what local support services are available in your area, and contact national cancer charities like Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK who can offer advice and help.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: