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Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that begins in your vagina. The vagina is the muscular tube leading from the cervix (the opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body and is also called the birth canal. The best chance for a cure is early diagnosis of vaginal cancer.
We treat our vaginal cancer patients using a comprehensive team approach, where our highly trained physicians, knowledgeable nurses and support staff come together to provide compassionate and personalized care.
Vaginal Cancer Care at UVM Medical Center
Our physicians and support staff work together with a variety of specialists, including radiation oncologists and pathologists, to provide expert care.
- Sophisticated technology - At UVM Medical Center, you have access to the latest treatments and technologies. We offer minimally invasive surgical techniques, like robotic surgery, that reduce recovery time and provide better outcomes.
- Evidence-based innovation - Women facing vaginal cancer benefit from our close partnership with the University of Vermont Cancer Center. Our cancer doctors regularly dedicate part of their time to developing more effective means of discovering and treating cancer. This means that your doctor has some of the most up-to-date information, which translates into better care for you and your family.
- Personalized treatment - Every patient’s experience of vaginal cancer is unique. Your doctor will listen to your concerns and your questions, working with you to develop a treatment plan that is most effective for your particular situation.
Vaginal Cancer: An Overview
Typically, vaginal cancer happens in the cells that line the surface of your vagina.
Several types of cancer can spread to your vagina from other places in your body, but cancer that begins in your vagina (called primary vaginal cancer) is rare. If the primary vaginal cancer spreads beyond your vagina, it is much more difficult to treat.
There may be no early signs of vaginal cancer. Once cancer progresses, vaginal cancer symptoms can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, not related to menstrual periods, such as after menopause or directly after intercourse
- Watery vaginal discharge
- A vaginal lump or mass
- Painful urination
- Pain during intercourse
- Pelvic pain
The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown. However, several factors may increase your risk of developing it, including:
- Age: The risk of vaginal cancer increases as you age. Most vaginal cancer diagnoses happen to women who are over the age of 60
- Vaginal Intraepithelial Neoplasia (VAIN): In VAIN, vaginal cells are different from normal vaginal cells, but not enough to be defined as cancer. HPV (human papillomavirus) causes VAIN. Ask your doctor about HPV vaccines
- DES (diethylstilbestrol) exposure before birth: DES was given as a miscarriage prevention drug in the 1950s. Women born to mothers who took DES have an increased risk of a rare form of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
- Multiple sexual partners
- Early age at first intercourse
- Smoking: UVM Medical Center offers a quit smoking program.
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection
Once a woman begins to have a monthly period, she should have a yearly pelvic exam that includes a Pap test. During this test, your doctor collects some cervical cells looking for cell changes. Sometimes vaginal cancer cells can be detected at the same time.
Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis
Your doctor may find vaginal cancer during a routine pelvic examination and Pap test. Facing a cancer diagnosis is never easy. You want to be sure you have the latest treatments, the most effective technology and a skilled and supportive team of caregivers. At The University of Vermont Medical Center, you will find each one of these in our gynecologic oncology team.
Our knowledgeable gynecologists are specially trained in advanced technology. Vaginal cancer diagnosis may include:
- Colposcopy - This procedure uses a lighted, magnifying instrument (colposcope) to check the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas.
- Biopsy - Sometimes colposcopy includes a biopsy, which is removing a sample of vaginal and cervical tissue for analysis in a laboratory by a pathologist.
- Pelvic exam - The doctor or nurse examines a woman's reproductive and other organs in the pelvis including the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum.
- Pap test - During a pelvic exam, the doctor or nurse collects vaginal and cervical cells for later analysis under a microscope.
- Imaging, such as:
Treatments for Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer treatment depends on the type and stage of the cancer as well as other factors such as your age, overall health and personal preferences. Your team of doctors will take all of that into account and recommend treatment options that are tailored to your specific situation.
Vaginal cancer treatment options at The UVM Medical Center include:
- Surgery - Surgery is the most common treatment for vaginal cancer.
- Hysterectomy - A total hysterectomy removes your uterus and cervix. Surgeons may perform a robotic surgery for hysterectomy, which is less invasive so it means less pain and a shorter recovery time. Often doctors recommend this surgery if your vaginal cancer has spread.
- Vaginectomy - Sometimes vaginal cancer requires surgery to remove all (radical vaginectomy) or part (partial vaginectomy) of the vagina. Surgeons can make a new vagina using pieces of skin, sections of intestine or flaps of muscle from other parts of your body. However, a reconstructed vagina will not act or feel exactly the same as the removed vagina. The reconstructed vagina does not have natural lubrication and changes in surrounding nerves may affect sensation.
- Laser Surgery - Surgeons make cuts in vaginal tissue using a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) to remove surface lesions or a small tumor.
- Pelvic Exenteration - This is an extensive surgery that removes most of your pelvic organs if your cancer has spread or come back (recurred).
- Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy treats cancer by destroying cancer cells using different types of medication.
- Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to destroy cancer cells.
- Clinical Trials - The UVM Medical Center has a history of clinical trial experience. Clinical trials are research studies that test the newest cancer treatments and new ways of using existing cancer treatments. Clinical trials can't guarantee a cure.
Ask your doctor about enrolling in a clinical trial. Together you can weigh the potential benefits and risks.