Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer. There are around 260 new cases of vaginal cancer diagnosed in the UK each year.
The most common symptom of vaginal cancer is painless bleeding from the vagina. See your GP if you experience any of the following symptoms:
any abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding between periods or bleeding after sex
vaginal bleeding and you have already had the menopause
your usual pattern of periods has changed, such as having irregular periods or heavier periods than usual
problems with urination, such as pain when urinating
While it is highly unlikely that any of these symptoms are caused by vaginal cancer, they will still need to be investigated by your GP.
Treating vaginal cancer
Vaginal cancer can be treated with a combination of radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
Your chances of making a recovery depend on how advanced your cancer is when it is diagnosed. Vaginal cancer is given stages from 1 to 4, with stage 1 being the least advanced and stage 4 meaning that the cancer has spread beyond your pelvis.
Around 9 out of 10 women with stage 1 vaginal cancer live for more than five years after being diagnosed. For women with stage 4 vaginal cancer, around a fifth live for more than five years.
The outlook for vaginal cancer is also slightly better for women who are under 60 when the cancer is diagnosed, and for women who have good health overall.
Who’s at risk?
The exact causes of vaginal cancer are unknown, but possible risk factors include:
your age – 7 out of 10 cases of vaginal cancer are in women over 60
being infected with a particularly persistent type of the human papilloma virus (HPV)
Since September 2008 there has been a national programme to vaccinate girls aged 12 to 13 against HPV.
Types of vaginal cancer
There are two main types of vaginal cancer:
primary vaginal cancer, where the cancer begins inside the vagina
secondary vaginal cancer, where the cancer begins in another part of the body (usually the reproductive system), such as the cervix (neck of the womb), and then spreads to the vagina
The rest of this topic will focus on primary vaginal cancer.
Primary vaginal cancer
There are three main types of primary vaginal cancer, depending on the type of cells that the cancer begins in.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer, accounting for more than 9 out of 10 cases.
Adenocarcinoma accounts for around 1 in 10 cases of vaginal cancer. A very rare type of adenocarcinoma called clear cell adenocarcinoma can sometimes affect teenagers and women in their twenties.
Melanoma is also rare and accounts for around 3 in 100 cases of vaginal cancer.