Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
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Vaginal Cancer

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2012
Overview

About the vagina

The vagina (birth canal) is the opening through which menstrual fluid leaves a woman’s body and babies are born. It is connected to the cervix (the opening of the uterus or womb) and the vulva (folds of skin around its opening).

Usually, the vagina is in a collapsed position with its walls touching. The walls have many folds that allow the vagina to open and expand during sexual intercourse and vaginal childbirth. The vaginal lining is kept moist by mucus released from glands in the cervix.

The vaginal walls have a thin layer of cells called the epithelium, which contains cells called squamous epithelial cells. The vaginal wall, underneath the epithelium, is made up of connective tissue, involuntary muscle tissue, lymph vessels, and nerves.

About vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is an uncommon cancer of the female reproductive system. Vaginal cancer begins when normal cells in the vagina change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). There are four types of vaginal cancer:

Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the cells lining the vagina, most often in the area closest to the cervix. Squamous cell cancer makes up 85% to 90% of vaginal cancers. It develops slowly through a precancerous condition (changes in cells that may, but do not always, become cancer) called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VAIN.

Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma begins in the vaginal gland tissue. It makes up about 5% to 10% of vaginal cancers.

Clear cell adenocarcinoma. This cancer occurs in young women whose mothers took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971. It is estimated that one woman out of 1,000 women exposed to DES will develop vaginal cancer.

Melanoma. Melanoma is another type of skin cancer that is usually found on skin exposed to the sun, but it can begin on the skin of the vagina or other internal organs. Melanoma often appears as a dark-colored tumor on the lower or outer parts of the vagina. Learn more about melanoma.

Find out more about basic cancer terms used in this section.

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