Health A-Z

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What Is It?

Vaginal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the vagina (birth canal).

Cancer that starts in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. Primary vaginal cancer is rare. More commonly, cancer cells in the vagina are from cancer that started somewhere else, such as the cervix. There are two main types of primary vaginal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

The vast majority of vaginal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers arise from the surface of the lining of the vagina. They usually develop slowly, most often in the upper part of the vagina near the cervix. This type of cancer typically affects women between 50 and 70 years old.

Adenocarcinomas form in the glands in the vaginal wall. This type of cancer is much less common than squamous cell carcinoma. However, it is the most common type of vaginal cancer in women younger than 20 years old. Daughters of mothers who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant have a higher risk of developing this rare form of cancer. (DES, introduced in the 1940s to help prevent miscarriages, was banned in the United States in 1971.)

Doctors recently identified vaginal lesions that are not cancerous. These lesions are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia, or VAIN. Having VAIN may make a woman more likely to develop cancer. VAIN is associated with human papilloma virus (HPV) infections. HPV infection can also lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers.

Less common types of vaginal cancer include malignant melanomas and sarcomas. Melanomas tend to affect the lower or outer part of the vagina. Sarcomas develop deep in the vaginal wall.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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