According to the American Cancer Society, only about 2,300 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year in the United States. This represents about 1% of cancers of the reproductive system in women.
The vagina sometimes is called the birth canal, because a baby passes through it during the last part of birth. It is a 3 to 4-inch tube that goes from the cervix (bottom section of the uterus or womb) to the vulva (the outside part of female genitals).
Vaginal Cancer Types
The types of vaginal cancer are classified by the type of cell in which they begin.
Squamous cell carcinoma: About 75% of 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 type of cancer makes up about 15% of vaginal cancers. It 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: Fewer than 10% of vaginal cancers are melanomas, which start in the cells that give the skin color.
Sarcoma: About 4% of vaginal cancers are sarcomas, which start within the wall of the vagina. The most common type is rhabdomyosarcoma, which usually is found in children.
Less Common Types
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.
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.