The vagina is the canal that leads from a woman’s external genitals (the vulva) to the bottom of the uterus (the cervix). The flat, thin skin cells that comprise the surface of the vaginal walls are squamous cells. Squamous cells are one of three types of epithelial cells – the cells that make up the tissue that line the body’s cavities, blood vessels, and organs.
Beneath the epithelial layer, the vaginal walls are composed of muscles, connective tissues, lymph vessels, and nerves. The vagina also contains a series of glands, which secrete fluids, keeping it moist and elastic.
Vaginal cancer is not very common, and the prognosis for recovery is usually good when the cancer is detected early. Some cancers, however, can start elsewhere and spread to the vagina, such as cervical or vulvar cancers.
Vaginal Cancer Symptoms
Vaginal cancer has many of the same symptoms as other reproductive diseases and infections. You should always make an appointment with your gynecologist if you’re experiencing any abnormal symptoms, including:
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sex
- Abnormal bleeding (vaginal bleeding not related to menstruation)
- Vaginal discharge
- A lump or bump in the vagina
Types of Vaginal Cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is by far the most common type of vaginal cancer, comprising about 70% of cases. Carcinomas of the squamous cells affect the epithelial (surface layer) of the vagina. They most often occur in the upper third of the vagina (the part nearest to the cervix), but they can occur in the lower portion as well.
Squamous cell carcinomas have been known to develop slowly over many years. They typically start as pre-cancerous changes called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). Mild cases of VAIN, called VAIN 1, sometimes develop and then disappear before the problem becomes cancerous. However, it can progress to more severe stages, such as VAIN 2 and VAIN 3, before becoming cancer.
The second most common type of vaginal cancer is adenocarcinoma, which makes up about 15% of cases. Adenocarcinomas originate in the glandular cells in the vaginal lining. Glandular cells are responsible for secreting fluids, which make it more likely for adenocarcinomas to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes.
A sarcoma is a type of cancer that originates in the bone, muscular, or connective tissue cells. Unlike squamous cell carcinomas, which develop on the epithelial surface, vaginal sarcomas develop deep in the walls of the vagina.
Melanomas are most commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body. They don’t commonly affect the vagina, but it can happen. Melanomas are carcinomas of the pigment-producing cells in the skin. Most cases of vaginal melanomas occur on the outside or lower portion of the vagina.