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Vaginal cancer is a malignant tumor that forms in the tissues of the vagina. Primary tumors are most usually squamous cell carcinomas. Primary tumors are rare, and more usually vaginal cancer occurs as a secondary tumor. Vaginal cancer occurs more often in women over age 50, but can occur at any age, even in infancy. It often can be cured if found and treated in early stages. Surgery alone or surgery combined with pelvic radiation is typically used to treat vaginal cancer. Children can be diagnosed with advanced vaginal cancer. They are treated by surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Vaginal cancer in children may recur. Gene therapy to treat vaginal cancer is currently in clinical trials.
Carcinoma of the vagina occurs in less than 2% of women with pelvic malignant tumors. Squamous carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is strongly associated with vaginal cancer. Vaginal cancer occurs most often in the upper third of the vagina (51%), 30% are found in the lower third, and 19% in the middle third. Vaginal cancer can present as an elevated lesion growing out from the epithelial surface or an ulcer-like, shallow depression. Definitive diagnosis is determined by biopsy.
Signs and symptoms
Most vaginal cancers do not cause signs or symptoms early on. When vaginal cancer does cause symptoms, they may include:
- Vaginal discharge or abnormal bleeding
- Unusually heavy flow of blood
- Bleeding after menopause
- Bleeding between periods; or any other
- Bleeding that is longer than normal
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Frequent or urgent need to urinate
- Feeling constipated
- pain during sexual intercourse
- a lump or growth in the vagina that can be felt
Enlarged pelvic lymph nodes can sometimes be palpated
- Prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol
- Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16
- Infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1
- Previous history of cervical cancer
- Chronic vulvar itching or burning
- Squamous-cell carcinoma of the vagina arises from the squamous cells (epithelium) that line the vagina. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer. It is found most often in women aged 60 or older.
- Vaginal adenocarcinoma arises from the glandular (secretory) cells in the lining of the vagina. Adenocarcinoma is more likely to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes.
- Clear cell adenocarcinoma occurs in a small percentage of women (termed "DES-Daughters") born between 1938 and 1973 (later outside the United States) that were exposed to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero. DES was prescribed to 5 to 10 million mothers period to prevent possible miscarriages and premature births. Typically, women develop DES-related adenocarcinoma before age 30, but increasing evidence suggests possible effects or cancers (including other forms of vaginal glandular tumors) at a later age. DES-exposure in women is also linked to various infertility and pregnancy complications. Daughters exposed to DES in utero may also have an increased risk of moderate/severe cervical squamous cell dysplasia and an increased risk of breast cancer. Approximately one in 1,000 (0.1%) DES Daughters will be diagnosed with clear cell adenocarcinoma. The risk is virtually non-existent among premenopausal women not exposed to DES.
- Vaginal germ cell tumors (primarily teratoma and endodermal sinus tumor) are rare. They are found most often in infants and children.
- Sarcoma botryoides, a rhabdomyosarcoma also is found most often in infants and children.
- Vaginal melanoma, a melanoma that appears in the vagina.
Several tests are used to diagnose vaginal cancer, including:
Recommendations for women with vaginal cancer is not to have routine surveillance imaging to monitor the cancer unless they have new symptoms or rising tumor markers. Imaging without these indications is discouraged because it is unlikely to detect a recurrence or improve survival, and because it has its own costs and side effects. MRI provides visualization of the extent of vaginal cancer.
Historically, the combination of external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) has been the most common treatment for vaginal cancer. In early stages of vaginal cancer, surgery also has some benefit. This management and treatment is less effective for those with advanced stages of cancer but works well in early stages with high rates of cure. Advanced vaginal cancer only has a 5-year survival rates of 52.2%, 42.5% and 20.5% for patients with stage II, III and IVa disease. Newer treatments for advanced stages of ovarian have been developed. These utilize concurrent carboplatin plus paclitaxel, EBRT and high-dose-rate interstitial brachytherapy (HDR-ISBT).
When the chance of surgical removal of all cancerous tissue is very low or when the surgery has a chance of damaging the bladder, vagina or bowel, radiation therapy is used. When a tumor is less than 4 cm in diameter, radiation therapy provides excellent results. In these instances, the 5-year survival rate is greater than 80%. Treatments are individualized due to the rarity of vaginal cancer studies.
Cancer of the vagina is rare and is only 2% of all gynecological cancers less than 0.5% of all cancers in women. Estimated new cases in the United States in 2017 are 4,810. Deaths from vaginal during the same time were 1,240. It is more common in older women.
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