Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that occurs in your vagina—a muscle tube that connects your uterus to your outer genitals. Vaginal cancer most commonly occurs in cells that line the surface of your vagina, sometimes referred to as the birth canal.
While several types of cancer can spread to your vagina from other parts of your body, cancer that begins in your vagina (primary vaginal cancer) is rare.
Early-stage diagnosis of vaginal cancer has the best chance of a cure. Vaginal cancer that spreads across the vagina is much more difficult to treat.
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Vaginal Cancer Risk Factors
A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of developing a disease, such as cancer. Different types of cancer have different risk factors. Some risk factors, such as smoking, may be changed. Others, like the age of a person or the history of a family, cannot be changed.
But having a risk factor, or even many, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the disease. And some people who have the disease may not have any known risk factors.
Scientists have found that some risk factors make a woman more likely to develop vaginal cancer. But many women with vaginal cancer have no clear risk factors.
Factors that can increase your risk:
- Increasing age. Your risk of vaginal cancer increases as you age. Most people who are diagnosed with vaginal cancer are older than 60.
- Atypical cells in the vagina called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia. Being diagnosed with vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) increases your risk of vaginal cancer.With VAIN, cells in the vagina appear different from normal cells, but not different enough to be considered cancer. A small number of those with VAIN will eventually develop vaginal cancer, though doctors aren’t sure what causes some cases to develop into cancer and others to remain benign. VAIN is frequently caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers, among others. Vaccines that prevent some types of HPV infection are available.
- Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug. If your mother took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant in the 1950s you may have an increased risk of a certain type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
Types of vaginal cancer
- Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) that line the surface of the vagina, and is the most common type
- Vaginal adenocarcinoma, which begins in the glandular cells on the surface of your vagina
- Vaginal melanoma, which develops in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) of your vagina
- Vaginal sarcoma, which develops in the connective tissue cells or muscles cells in the walls of your vagina
What causes vaginal cancer is not clear. In general, cancer begins when healthy cells develop a genetic mutation that turns normal cells into abnormal cells.
Healthy cells grow and multiply at a fixed rate, eventually dying at a set time. Cancer cells are growing and multiplying out of control, and they don’t die. The accumulation of abnormal cells is a mass (tumor).
Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from an initial tumor and spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).
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