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How rare is vaginal cancer?

While all women are at risk of developing vaginal cancer, it is very uncommon. It’s the least common of all gynaecological cancers in Australia, with about 100 women diagnosed each year. It is more common in women over the age of 60, although it can also occur in younger women. Almost half of vaginal cancer cases occur in women who are 70 years of age or older.

Worldwide, it is estimated 17,900 people are diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year. Of these, about 8,000 women each year will die from this disease. Of all geographical regions, South-Central Asia and Southern Africa have the highest incidence rates.

Doctor holding rare disease sign

Cancer in the vagina can be a “primary” vaginal cancer (the cancer develops and starts growing there) or cancer in the vagina can come from somewhere else (the cancer develops and starts growing somewhere else and forms a metastasis in the vagina).

Types of primary vaginal cancer

There are several types of primary vaginal cancer. These include:

  • Squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) which begins in the squamous cells lining the vagina. This is the most common type, which account for about 85% of vaginal cancers.
  • Adenocarcinoma which develops from the glandular mucus-producing cells of the vagina. This subtype can sometimes occur in younger women.
  • Vaginal (mucosal) melanoma, which is a very rare form developing in the melanocyte cells
  • Sarcoma, another rare form of vaginal cancer that starts in the muscle, fat or other tissue deeper in the vaginal wall.

Causes

The exact cause of most vaginal cancers is not known. A high proportion of vaginal (SCC) cancers are associated with HPV. Other risk factors include: exposure to diethylstilboestrol (DES) in the womb (a synthetic hormone prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness from 1940 to the 1970s), previous cervical cancer or pre-cervical cancer, or previous radiotherapy to the pelvic area, however this is rare. Smoking cigarettes may also increase your risk.

Secondary vaginal cancer

Secondary cancer in the vagina is more common than primary vaginal cancer. This means the cancer has spread to the vagina from another part of the body, such as the cervix, or uterus. Secondary vaginal cancer is treated differently from primary vaginal cancer.

Symptoms

There are often no obvious symptoms of vaginal cancer. The cancer is sometimes found by a routine cervical screening test (CST). Symptoms can include:

  • Blood-stained vaginal discharge that is not related to menstrual bleeding, and may have an unusual smell
  • Pain during or bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Pain in the pelvic area or rectum
  • A lump in the vagina.
  • Problems with passing urine, such as blood in the urine, and the need to pass urine frequently or during the night

If you have any signs or symptoms of vaginal cancer, you should speak to your GP in the first instance and request a physical examination with a biopsy of any suspicious areas.

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