Last week, in part one, we discussed endometrial cancer. This week we will be discussing vaginal cancer.
Vaginal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the surface of the vagina, which is sometimes called the birth canal. The vagina itself is the muscular tube that connects the uterus and the outer genitals. Although several types of cancer can spread to the vagina from other places in the body, like the cervix, primary vaginal cancer (cancer that begins in the vagina) is very rare. Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma are the two main types of primary vaginal cancer.
Vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is very difficult to treat and an early-stage diagnosis gives the patient the best chance at remission.
Early-stage vaginal cancer may not cause any signs and symptoms. As it progresses, nevertheless, it may cause:
● Pelvic pain
● Unusual vaginal bleeding
● Watery vaginal discharge
● A mass or lump in the vagina
● Painful or frequent urination
Patients should schedule an appointment with their gynecologist if they have any signs of vaginal cancer. Considering vaginal cancer doesn’t always have symptoms, it’s important for patients to follow their doctors’ recommendations regarding pelvic exams and cancer screenings.
The exact cause of vaginal cancer is still unclear. Generally, mutations transform normal, healthy cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow, multiply and die at a set pace. On the other hand, abnormal cells grow/multiply uncontrollably, and they don’t die after a set amount of time. The accumulating abnormal cells combine to create a tumor or mass. The cancer cells can separate from an initial tumor and then infiltrate surrounding tissues spreading elsewhere in the body, such as the lungs, liver, and bones.
Types of vaginal cancer
Vaginal cancer is classified based on where cancer began, including:
Vaginal adenocarcinoma: a type of cancer that begins in the glandular cells on the surface of the vagina.
Vaginal sarcoma: a type of cancer which develops in the connective tissue or muscle cells in the walls of the vagina.
Vaginal melanoma: a type of cancer that begins in the melanocytes (the pigment-producing cells) of the vagina.
Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma: is the most common type of vaginal cancer that develops in the squamous cells which are thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vagina.
Factors that may increase a patient’s risk of vaginal cancer include:
Aging: A patient’s risk of vaginal cancer increases as they age. The majority of patients who are diagnosed with vaginal cancer are over the age of 60.
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia: Having atypical cells in the vagina called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) increases a patient’s risk of vaginal cancer.
● In patients with VAIN, vaginal cells appear abnormal but not abnormal enough to be considered cancer. A small number of VAIN patients will eventually develop vaginal cancer, although it’s unknown what causes some cases to develop into cancer and others to remain benign.
● VAIN is regularly caused by the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause certain types of cancers like cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Luckily, vaccinations that prevent specific strains of HPV are available.
Exposure to miscarriage prevention drugs: Patients whose mothers took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant (this drug was available during the 1950s) may have an increased risk of developing clear cell adenocarcinoma which is a type of vaginal cancer.
Other potential risk factors that have been linked to an increased risk of vaginal cancer include:
● HIV positive diagnosis
● Multiple sexual partners
● Early age at first intercourse
There is no guaranteed way to prevent vaginal cancer. However, patients can reduce their risk if they:
Undergo routine Pap tests and pelvic exams: Patients can increase the probability that vaginal cancer is discovered early by having regular Pap tests and pelvic exams. Patients with vaginal cancer are more likely to recover when the cancer is discovered in its earliest stages. Patients should discuss when to begin these tests and how often they need to do them, with their gynecologist.
Receive the HPV vaccine: Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection reduces a patient’s risk of developing HPV-related cancers like cervical cancer.
Don’t smoke: If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Smoking is associated with increasing the risk of vaginal cancer.
If you are a vaginal cancer patient who wants additional resources or if you’re concerned that you might have a gynecological problem that is undiagnosed, please contact Mangrove Women’s Health at (530) 345-0064, Ext 281 to set up an appointment.