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Vaginal Cancer

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 20, 2023.

What Is It?

Harvard Health Publishing

Vaginal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the vagina (birth canal).

Vaginal Cancer

Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. Primary vaginal cancer is rare. More commonly, cancer cells in the vagina are from cancer that started somewhere else, such as the cervix. There are two main types of primary vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

The vast majority of vaginal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers arise from the surface of the lining of the vagina. They usually develop slowly, most often in the upper part of the vagina near the cervix. This type of cancer typically affects women between 50 and 70 years old.

Adenocarcinomas form in the glands in the vaginal wall. This type of cancer is much less common than squamous cell carcinoma. However, it is the most common type of vaginal cancer in women younger than 20 years old. Daughters of mothers who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have a higher risk of developing this rare form of cancer. (DES, introduced in the 1940s to help prevent miscarriages, was banned in the United States in 1971.)

Doctors recently identified vaginal lesions that are not cancerous. These lesions are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia, or VAIN. Having VAIN may make a woman more likely to develop cancer. VAIN is associated with human papilloma virus (HPV) infections. HPV infection can also lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers.

Less common types of vaginal cancer include malignant melanomas and sarcomas. Melanomas tend to affect the lower or outer part of the vagina. Sarcomas develop deep in the vaginal wall.


Symptoms of vaginal cancer include:

These symptoms also occur in several less dangerous—and more common—conditions, such as infections of the reproductive organs. But these symptoms should always be evaluated by a doctor.

In some cases, a woman may not have any symptoms. Instead, the disease is found during a routine exam.


Your doctor will ask about your medical history, symptoms, and risk factors for vaginal cancer. He or she will then perform an internal pelvic exam and Pap smear. During a Pap smear, a small plastic stick and soft brush are used to collect cells from the vagina and cervix. These cells are examined for abnormalities.

If the exam or Pap smear shows any abnormalities, your doctor will do a colposcopy. During this exam, he or she will look at the cervix and walls of the vagina with a magnifying lens. Small bits of tissue may be removed and checked for cancer cells in a laboratory. This is called a biopsy.

If cancer is diagnosed, your doctor may perform imaging tests to determine whether the cancer has spread and, if so, how far. These may include

You may also have endoscopic tests. During these tests, your doctor can view the inside of the bladder, rectum, and part of the colon through a tube with a tiny camera on the end.

Doctors assign a numerical stage to cancer. The stage indicates how far the cancer has spread. These are the stages of vaginal cancer:

Expected Duration

Unless treated, vaginal cancer continues to grow and spread.


To lower your risk of vaginal cancer, follow these guidelines:


The choice of treatment depends upon the type of cancer and its stage. The treatment plan also takes into account a woman's age, overall health, fertility, and personal preferences.

The two main treatments for vaginal cancer are radiation therapy and surgery. Chemotherapy has not proven to be very successful for vaginal cancer. It is only used for very advanced cancers (with or without radiation), and then usually as part of a clinical trial.

Various types of radiation therapy may be used. These include external-beam radiation, internal radiation, or a combination. External-beam radiation involves carefully targeting a beam of radiation at the cancer from a machine outside of the body. Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, involves placing radioactive materials inside the vagina. While external-beam radiation can harm nearby healthy tissues, brachytherapy can cause more vaginal side effects, such as scarring of vaginal tissues.

There are two other types of internal radiation therapy. Low-dose brachytherapy involves placing radioactive material inside a cylindrical container, which is placed in the vagina for one to two days. Interstitial therapy involves placing radioactive materials directly into the cancer with needles.

Only a small number of vaginal cancers are treated with surgery. That's because the surgery tends to be extensive. Plus, it may not be any more effective than radiation therapy. One exception: Stage I adenocarcinomas. In these cases, doctors may remove the tumor, some surrounding tissue, and the lymph nodes. This limited operation may be followed by radiation therapy. This type of treatment can help preserve a woman's fertility. Preserving fertility is important because these cancers are more common in younger women.

Women with stage II squamous cell cancers who cannot have radiation therapy—perhaps because they had radiation therapy in the past for another cancer—may also have surgery.

The extent of surgery depends on the cancer's stage and size. Types of surgery include

If all or part of the vagina must be removed, it can be reconstructed with tissue from another part of the body.

When To Call a Professional

Contact your doctor if you develop any symptoms of vaginal cancer. Keep in mind that symptoms can be signs of other, less-serious conditions.

You should always call your doctor right away if you have fevers with abdominal or pelvic pain. You might have a serious infection that needs treatment right away.

Because vaginal cancer is relatively rare, seek the opinion of a specialist in gynecological oncology.


The outlook depends on the size and stage of the cancer when it is diagnosed. Early detection and treatment improves the prognosis.

Additional Information

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
U.S. National Institutes of Health
Public Inquiries Office
Building 31, Room 10A03
31 Center Drive, MSC 8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-2580
Phone: 301-435-3848
Toll-Free: 1-800-422-6237
TTY: 1-800-332-8615

American Cancer Society (ACS)
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329-4251
Toll-Free: 1-800-227-2345

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.