Cancer refers to uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Vaginal cancer means cancer cell growth in the vagina. The vagina is the tube connecting the uterus with genitals out-side. This cancer often occurs in cells lining the vagina (or birth canal). This rare cancer affects 1 per 200,000 women. It mainly occurs after menopause (change of life). The mean age at diagnosis is 60 years. The cancer can spread (metastasize) to nearby organs or other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymph system.
The cause is unknown. Women whose mothers took a drug called DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy have a higher risk of getting it, and at a younger age. Anything that causes long-term inflammation of the vagina may increase the risk of this cancer. This includes overuse of a pessary (a device that is put into the vagina to keep it from dropping). Pelvic radiation therapy, infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), and a family history of cancer of reproductive organs may also increase the risk.
Common symptoms include bleeding that isn’t related to normal periods, pelvic pain or pressure, pain and problems when urinating, and pain or bleeding during sex. Constipation and a lump in the vagina can also occur.
The health care provider may suspect the diagnosis from symptoms and will perform a pelvic examination to look and feel for inflammation, ulcers, lumps, or tumors. A Pap smear is done. This involves gently scraping the vagina and cervix to collect cells. These are then checked with a microscope. Other tests may include a biopsy, chest X-ray, and computed tomography (CT) of the pelvis and abdomen (belly). A biopsy involves taking a small tissue sample to study with a microscope.
Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are used. Which treatment or combination of treatments depends on where and how severe the cancer is and the woman’s age and physical condition. The more the disease spread, the longer and more complicated the treatment. The health care team may include specialists in cancer treatment (oncologists and hematologists), radiation oncologists (specialists who use X-ray therapy to shrink tumors), and surgical oncologists (specialists who use surgery to treat cancer).
Surgery is the most common treatment. Small cancers may have surgery with a laser, a narrow beam of light that can destroy the tumor. Radiation therapy may be used alone or with surgery. Chemotherapy drugs can be used to kill cancer cells. They’re usually given with surgery or radiation.
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