What is vaginal cancer?

Last medical review:

Vaginal cancer starts in the cells of the vagina. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

The vagina is part of the female reproductive system. It is a muscular tube that goes from the cervix to the outside of the body. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus, or womb. The cervix opens into the vagina. Blood and tissue (menstrual fluid) pass out of the body through the vagina. During vaginal childbirth, the baby passes through the vagina.

Diagram of the female reproductive system
Diagram of the female reproductive system

Changes to cells of the vagina can cause precancerous conditions. This means that the abnormal cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that they may become cancer if they aren’t treated. The most common precancerous condition of the vagina is vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). Most of the time, VAIN is successfully treated and doesn't develop into cancer.

But in some cases, changes to vaginal cells can cause vaginal cancer. Most often, vaginal cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. The squamous cells make up the lining of the vagina. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the vagina. Cancer can also start in the glandular cells, which make mucus. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the vagina.

Other types of vaginal cancer can also develop, but they are less common. Melanoma of the vagina starts in melanocytes, which are cells that make pigments. They are the cells that give colour to your eyes, skin and hair. Another type of cancer can start in the muscle or connective tissue cells in the vagina. This type of cancer is called sarcoma.

Other types of cancer can spread to the vagina, but this is not the same disease as primary vaginal cancer. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the vagina is called vaginal metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary vaginal cancer. Vaginal metastasis is more common than primary vaginal cancer and most often spreads to the vagina from the cervix or vulva.

Expert review and references

  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) . Cancer.net: Vaginal Cancer. 2021: https://www.cancer.net/.
  • Levine DA, Dizon DS, Yashar CM, Barakat RR, Berchuch A, Markman M, Randall ME. Handbook for Principles and Practice of Gynecologic Oncology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2015.
  • Martini FH, Timmons MJ, Tallitsch RB. Human Anatomy. 7th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings; 2012.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Vaginal Cancer Treatment Overview(PDQ®)–Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2022: https://www.cancer.gov/.

The vagina

The vagina is a passageway that connects the cervix (opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body. It is part of the female reproductive system.

Cancerous tumours of the vagina

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer. There are also very rare types of vaginal cancer.

Precancerous conditions of the vagina

Precancerous conditions of the vagina can develop into vaginal cancer. They are abnormal changes (called dysplasia) in the cells of the vagina.

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