What is vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer starts in the cells of the vagina. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
The vagina is part of a woman’s reproductive system. It is a muscular tube that goes from the cervix to the outside of the body. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus, or womb. The cervix opens into the vagina. Blood and tissue (menstrual fluid) passes out of the body through the vagina. During childbirth, the baby passes through the vagina. The vagina is also called the birth canal.
Changes to cells of the vagina can cause precancerous conditions. This means that the abnormal cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that they may become cancer if they aren’t treated. The most common precancerous condition of the vagina is vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). Most women diagnosed with VAIN are successfully treated and don’t develop cancer.
But in some cases, changes to vaginal cells can cause vaginal cancer. Most often, vaginal cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. The squamous cells make up the lining of the vagina. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the vagina. Cancer can also start in the glandular cells, which make mucus. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the vagina.
Other types of vaginal cancer can also develop, but they are less common. Melanoma of the vagina starts in melanocytes, which are a type of cell that makes pigments. They are the cells that give colour to your eyes, skin and hair. Another type of cancer can start in the muscle or connective tissue cells in the vagina. This type of cancer is called sarcoma.
Other types of cancer can spread to the vagina, but this is not the same disease as primary vaginal cancer. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the vagina is called vaginal metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary vaginal cancer. Vaginal metastasis is more common than primary vaginal cancer, most often spreading to the vagina from the cervix or vulva.
What’s the lifetime risk of getting cancer?
The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report shows about half of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.