Vaginal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2020

ON THIS PAGE: You will find basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Vaginal Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

About the vagina

The vagina or birth canal is the opening through which menstrual blood leaves a woman’s body and babies are born. It is connected to the cervix, which is the opening of the uterus or womb, and to the vulva, which are folds of skin around the vaginal 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. Underneath the epithelium, the vaginal wall is made up of connective tissue, involuntary muscle tissue, lymph vessels, and nerves.

About precancerous lesions in the vagina

Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VaIN), or vaginal dysplasia, is a condition in which abnormal cells in the vagina can become cancer in some people. These abnormal cells are often found with cervical dysplasia, also known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), a precancerous lesion of the cervix. Usually, these lesions are associated with human papillomavirus, also called HPV (see Risk Factors and Prevention).

The treatment for these potentially precancerous lesions includes surgical removal, laser surgery, and medications, including topical estrogen. Laser surgery is the use of a focused beam of light that burns the precancerous lesion off the vaginal wall.

About vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is an uncommon cancer of the female reproductive system. Vaginal cancer begins when healthy cells in the vagina change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor is a tumor that can grow but will not spread.

About 85% of cancers that involve the vagina have actually spread from other parts of the body, and about half of these are from the cervix or uterus. 

There are 5 primary types of cancer that begin in the vagina.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can develop in the cells lining the vagina, most often in the area closest to the cervix. Squamous cell carcinoma makes up about 85% of vaginal cancers. It develops slowly through the precancerous condition called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VaIN, described above.

  • 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 women whose mothers took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971. It is estimated that 1 woman out of 1,000 women exposed to DES will develop vaginal cancer.

  • Melanoma. Although it is rare, melanoma can begin in the vagina. Melanomas are usually found on skin in parts of the body commonly exposed to the sun, but it can occasionally develop where there is no sun exposure. Melanoma often appears as a dark-colored lesion with irregular borders. Learn more about melanoma.

  • Sarcomas. There are several types of these rare tumors that can arise in the vagina. 

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with vaginal cancer and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.