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Vaginal cancer is classified by the type of cell where it begins.
Squamous cell carcinoma: Most vaginal cancers are squamous cell cancers, which start in the vagina lining. These cancers develop slowly, sometimes over many years. Often they begin as vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN), which is a precancerous condition. VAIN is found most often in women who have had hysterectomies (removal of the uterus), cervical cancer or cervical precancer.
Adenocarcinoma: This cancer starts in the gland cells of the vagina and is most often found in women over 50. A subtype called clear cell adenocarcinoma is found in younger women whose mothers took the drug DES when they were pregnant.
Melanoma: This type of vaginal cancer starts in the cells that give the skin color.
Sarcoma: A small number vaginal cancers are sarcomas, which start within the wall of the vagina. The most common type is rhabdomyosarcoma, which usually is found in children.
Sometimes cancer that begins in other parts of the body spreads (metastasizes) to the vagina. When this happens, the cancer is named for the part of the body where it started. Cancer of the cervix and vagina is called cervical cancer. Cancer of the vulva and vagina is called vulvar cancer.
Vaginal Cancer Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting vaginal cancer is a risk factor. These include:
- DES (diethylstilbestrol): This drug was given between 1940 and 1971 to some pregnant women to help them not have a miscarriage (lose the baby).
- Vaginal adenosis: In some women, especially those whose mothers took DES, the cells in the vagina change from squamous cells to endometrium (or glandular) cells.
- HPV (human papilloma virus)
- Cervical cancer or pre-cancer
- Drinking alcohol in excess
- HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus)
Not everyone with risk factors gets vaginal cancer. However, if you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor.
Learn more about vaginal cancer:
In rare cases, vaginal cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.
Why choose MD Anderson for vaginal cancer treatment?
When you come to MD Anderson's Gynecologic Oncology Center for vaginal cancer care, a team of experts focuses on you. These nationally known physicians customize your therapy to include the most advanced vaginal cancer treatments with the least impact on your body.
Your care team works together closely, communicating and collaborating often to be sure you receive the most comprehensive and efficient care. The group may include surgical, medical, radiation and gynecological oncologists; surgeons and reconstructive surgeons; diagnostic radiologists and pathologists. A specially trained support staff joins them in delivering your care for vaginal cancer.
MD Anderson treats more women each year with this complex type of cancer than most oncologists in the nation. This gives us a level of experience and expertise that is rare and translates to more successful outcomes for many women with vaginal cancer.
Surgery often is one of the methods used to treat vaginal cancer. Our skilled surgeons – who include some of the top reconstructive surgeons in the country – are known for innovative techniques and excellent outcomes.
We consider your quality of life one of our top priorities. That's why we offer the most advanced surgical methods for vaginal cancer, including procedures that allow some women to keep the ability to have children.
Pioneering vaginal cancer research
We're constantly researching newer, safe, more-advanced vaginal cancer treatments. This translates to a number of clinical trials of new treatments for vaginal cancer.
And at MD Anderson you're surrounded by the strength of one of the nation's largest and most experienced comprehensive cancer centers, which has all the support and wellness services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
I just want to do my best to brighten patients' days and let them know I'm here for them.
HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot
More than 70% of vaginal cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, for which a safe and effective vaccine currently exists. MD Anderson’s HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot® aims to improve outcomes for vaginal cancer patients through prevention initiatives and new treatments.Learn more
Mary Taylor thought she was experiencing pelvic pain due to endometriosis in early 2015. She never suspected it was a symptom of vaginal cancer.
After weeks with no change, she decided to see her gynecologist, who noticed abnormalities in Mary’s vaginal wall and performed a biopsy. When Mary didn’t hear back for several weeks, she figured the test must have come back clear. Then, she received a call from her doctor: Mary had vaginal cancer. Her doctor had taken extra time and checked the biopsy results several times to be sure.
Mary was shocked. She immediately called her husband, Robert.
“My husband is like an angel in a crisis,” says Mary, a symphony violinist and violin teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. Wanting more information, they drove together to the gynecologist’s office.
Receiving a vaginal cancer diagnosis
When Robert and Mary arrived, her gynecologist said that she felt Mary was going to have a difficult time with cancer. Mary felt confused and upset.
Soon afterwards, she saw a local oncologist, who ordered an MRI. It only showed vaginal cancer. But the oncologist suspected that the cancer may have spread there from another origin. Additional tests came back clear, but the doctor recommended Mary undergo a capsule endoscopy, in which the patient swallows a pill-like capsule containing a wireless camera to take pictures of the digestive tract.
Getting a second opinion at MD Anderson
Mary instead decided to get a second opinion. A friend recommended MD Anderson.
“MD Anderson is one of the most amazing places that we’ve ever been,” says Mary. “It’s just like something from a heavenly realm.”
Mary had her first appointment in June 2015. Before they arrived, Mary and Robert prepared a letter for their new gynecologic oncologist stating they did not want to know what stage the cancer was, statistics on survival, or projected length of life with the diagnosis. Understanding that no one knew exactly what the outcome of Mary’s individual cancer treatment would be, they wanted to remain positive.
At MD Anderson, Mary had another biopsy, MRI, PET scan and chest X-ray. Using these scans, the pathology, radiology and clinical teams checked for signs of cancer in her lymph nodes, bones and throughout her body, but they found the cancer hadn’t spread and was confined to the vaginal wall. MD Anderson’s gynecologic oncology pathologists validated this conclusion, recognizing features of the cancer cells that they identified as primary vaginal cancer.
A three-part vaginal cancer treatment plan
At the end of June 2015, Mary began her treatment. She started with five weeks of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) — a precise form of radiation delivered through an external beam — under the care of radiation oncologist Ann Klopp, M.D., followed by four rounds of chemotherapy with the drug cisplatin given through an IV infusion. Between these infusions, Mary experienced some nausea and had to force herself to eat — a common side effect of chemotherapy.
After radiation therapy and chemotherapy, Mary received interstitial brachytherapy implant treatment, which delivers radiation therapy with tiny pieces of radioactive material that are placed inside the patient’s body as close to the tumor as possible. This allows doctors to deliver very high doses of radiation directly to the patient’s tumor while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissue.
The power of positivity
Long before her vaginal cancer diagnosis, Mary had begun meditating. She relied on mediation again to help her through the ups and downs of treatment.
“To me, meditation is just a different kind of prayer,” she says.
Mary also visited MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center and looked at books on the relationship between the mind, body and spirit. “It was really interesting, and it was really helpful,” she says.
On July 31, 2015, Mary completed her treatment. She returned in November for a PET scan, which showed she had no evidence of disease.
Now, she returns to MD Anderson yearly for her checkups. When friends and family ask how she’s doing, she doesn’t say anything about the ups and downs of the past few years. She simply tells them, “I’m perfect.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.