What are the symptoms of vaginal and vulval cancer?

Vaginal cancer is a malignant disease that starts in the vagina (primary vaginal cancer), and vulval cancer starts on the external women’s genitals. Vulval cancer is uncommon with approximately 400 women in Australia diagnosed each year. Vaginal cancer is even less common, with just under 100 women diagnosed each year, making it the least common gynaecological cancer. These cancers most commonly affect postmenopausal women.

Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer symptoms may 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

Symptoms of Vulval Cancer

Symptoms of vulval cancer may include:

  • A lump on the vulva
  • Persistent itching, tenderness or burning of the vulva that does not go away
  • Changes in the skin of the vulva, including colour changes or growths that look like a wart or ulcer
  • Abnormal bleeding

If you have any signs or symptoms of vulval or vaginal cancer, you should speak to your GP in the first instance and request a physical examination. Several benign and treatable problems (such as thrush) can also be a cause of these symptoms, not just cancer. Most of the time these symptoms will have a less serious reason, however it is important to know the cause so you can receive early treatment.

Risk factors

We don’t know exactly what causes these cancers, but Cancer Australia reports some factors that can increase your risk.

Cherish Women's Cancer Foundation promotional image

Vaginal cancer risk factors include:

  • Exposure to diethylstilboestrol (DES) in the womb, which was a synthetic hormone prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness from 1940 to the 1970s
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Previous cervical cancer or pre-cervical cancer
  • Previous radiotherapy to the pelvic area, however this is rare.

Vulval cancer risk factors include:

  • VIN (vulval intraepithelial neoplasia)
  • Noncancerous skin conditions called vulval lichen sclerosus and vulval lichen planus
  • Smoking
  • Weakened immune system
  • Previous cervical or vaginal cancer
  • Abnormal cervical screening test history.

How is Vaginal and Vulval Cancer diagnosed?

The diagnosis of vaginal and vulval cancer involves a physical examination, a cervical screening test, and confirmation by colposcopy, which takes a sample of tissue (biopsy) if required.

Overall, speak to your GP if you are concerned about vulval or vaginal cancer. Putting up with abnormal symptoms is never a good idea because it can mask serious conditions that cannot be detected otherwise.

If you would like more information about the treatment of vulval or vaginal cancer, please refer to Vulval & Vaginal Cancer.

Enquire about an appointment.

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