Primary vaginal cancer is rare; these cancers account for 1 to 2% of gynecologic cancers in the United States. Metastases to the vagina or local extension from adjacent gynecologic structures is more common than primary tumors of the vagina. Average age at diagnosis is 60 to 65 years.
Risk factors for vaginal cancer include
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
Cervical Cervical Cancer Cervical cancer is usually squamous cell carcinoma; adenocarcinoma is less common. The cause of most cervical cancers is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Cervical neoplasia is often asymptomatic... read more , vulvar Vulvar Cancer Vulvar cancer is usually a squamous cell cancer, most often occurring in older women. It usually manifests as a visible or palpable lesion. Diagnosis is by biopsy. Treatment typically includes... read more , or anal intraepithelial neoplasia or cancer Anal Cancer Anal cancer accounts for an estimated 8590 cases and about 1350 deaths in the US annually ( 1). The main symptom is bleeding with defecation. Diagnosis is by endoscopy. Treatment options include... read more
In-utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol
Most vaginal cancers are caused by persistent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Exposure to diethylstilbestrol in utero predisposes to clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina, which is a rare histologic type of vaginal cancer; mean age at diagnosis is 19 years.
Most (95%) primary vaginal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas; others include primary and secondary adenocarcinomas, secondary squamous cell carcinomas (in older women), clear cell adenocarcinomas (in young women), and melanomas. The most common vaginal sarcoma is sarcoma botryoides (embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma); peak incidence is at age 3 years.
Most vaginal cancers occur in the upper third of the posterior vaginal wall. They may spread as follows:
By direct extension (into the local paravaginal tissues, bladder, or rectum)
Through inguinal lymph nodes from lesions in the lower vagina
Through pelvic lymph nodes from lesions in the upper vagina
Symptoms and Signs of Vaginal Cancer
Most patients with vaginal cancer present with abnormal intermenstrual vaginal bleeding, often postmenopausal or postcoital. Some also present with a watery vaginal discharge or dyspareunia. Few patients are asymptomatic, and the lesion is discovered during routine pelvic examination or evaluation of an abnormal Papanicolaou (Pap) test.
Vesicovaginal or rectovaginal fistulas are manifestations of advanced disease.
Diagnosis of Vaginal Cancer
Biopsy is usually diagnostic, but wide local excision is occasionally necessary.
Vaginal cancers are staged clinically (see table ), based primarily on physical examination, endoscopy (ie, cystoscopy, proctoscopy), chest x-ray (for pulmonary metastases), and usually CT (for abdominal or pelvic metastases). Survival rates depend on the stage.
Treatment of Vaginal Cancer
Hysterectomy, vaginectomy, lymph node dissection and sometimes radiation therapy for stage I tumors confined to the upper third of the vagina
Radiation therapy for most others
Stage I tumors within the upper third of the vagina can be treated with radical hysterectomy, upper vaginectomy, and pelvic lymph node dissection, sometimes followed by radiation therapy.
Most other primary tumors are treated with radiation therapy, usually a combination of external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy. If radiation therapy is contraindicated because of vesicovaginal or rectovaginal fistulas, pelvic exenteration is done.
Vaginal cancer is caused by HPV infection or in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol.
Risk factors include cervical or vulvar precancer or cancer.
Most patients present with abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Usually diagnose with biopsy; sometimes wide local excision is necessary.
Treat tumors confined to the wall of the upper third of the vagina with hysterectomy plus vaginectomy and lymph node dissection, sometimes followed by radiation therapy, and treat most other tumors with radiation therapy.
The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.
National Cancer Institute: Vaginal Cancer: This web site provides links to information about causes, prevention, and treatment of vaginal cancer, as well as links to information about screening and supportive and palliative care.
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