Vaginal cancer

What is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer is a cancer in the tissues of the vagina. It can also be called cancer of the vagina.

The vagina

The vagina is a muscular tube that extends from the opening of the uterus (called the cervix) to the external part of a woman’s sex organs (the vulva). The vagina is also called the birth canal. The uterus is also called the womb.

The vagina is the passageway through which menstrual blood flows, sexual intercourse occurs, and a baby is born.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of many related diseases. All cancers begin in cells, the body’s basic building blocks.

Normally, cells grow and multiply in an orderly way.

However, damaged genes can cause them to behave abnormally. They may grow into a lump called a tumour. Tumours can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).

A malignant tumour is made up of cancer cells. If these cells are not treated, they may spread beyond their normal boundaries and into surrounding tissues, becoming invasive cancer. This spread of cancer is called metastasis.

When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumour has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumour.

Types of vaginal cancer

There are two main types of vaginal cancer: those that start in the vagina itself (primary vaginal cancer), and those that spread into the vagina from another part of the body (secondary vaginal cancer). This information is about primary vaginal cancer.

Primary vaginal cancer

There are two main types of primary vaginal cancers. They are named after the cells from which they develop:

  • Squamous cell. The most common type of vaginal cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma, which means the cancer originated from the skin cells. This is usually found in the upper part of the vagina, and most commonly affects women between the ages of 50 and 70.
  • Adenocarcinoma. This type of vaginal cancer begins in the glandular cells in the lining of the vagina. It usually affects women under 20, but occasionally occurs in other age groups.

Other very rare types of vaginal cancer include melanoma, small cell carcinoma, sarcoma, and lymphoma.

Secondary vaginal cancer

Secondary cancers in the vagina (those that have spread from other parts of the body) are more common than primary vaginal cancer. They usually spread from the cervix, the lining of the womb (the endometrium), the vulva or from nearby organs such as the bladder or bowel.

How common is vaginal cancer?

Cancer of the vagina is rare. About 90 Australian women are newly diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year. This represents about one woman in every 143,000. Vaginal cancer accounts for less than half of one per cent of all cancers in Australian women.