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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.
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Prevention & Screening
Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular screening.