Treating vaginal cancer
Treatment for vaginal cancer will depend on where the cancer is in your vagina and how far it has spread. Possible treatments include radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, you will be cared for by a group of different healthcare professionals, known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your MDT will include a range of specialists, including surgeons, clinical oncologists (specialists in the non-surgical treatment of cancer), and specialist cancer nurses.
Your MDT will recommend a treatment plan they feel is most suitable for you, but the final decision will be yours.
Before going to hospital to discuss your treatment options, you may find it useful to write a list of questions to ask the specialist. For example, you may want to find out the advantages and disadvantages of particular treatments.
Radiotherapy is the main treatment for vaginal cancer. It can be used:
- as an initial treatment to cure the cancer
- in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation)
- after surgery to prevent the cancer from returning
- to control symptoms when a cure is not possible (palliative radiotherapy)
How it's carried out
There are two main ways that radiotherapy for vaginal cancer can be given:
- external radiotherapy – a machine beams high-energy rays at your vagina and pelvis
- internal radiotherapy – a small radioactive device, which looks like a tampon, is inserted into your vagina
The type of radiotherapy you receive depends on where the cancer is in your body. For example, internal radiotherapy may be used if the cancer is in the lining of your vagina, and external radiotherapy may be used if the cancer is deeper in the tissues of the vagina. Many women receive a combination of internal and external radiotherapy.
External radiotherapy is usually given for around four to six weeks in short daily sessions, from Monday to Friday. You return home between treatments and have a break at the weekends.
Internal radiotherapy may involve either a long treatment session where you need to stay in hospital for 24 hours, or several short day-case treatments.
Read more about how radiotherapy is performed.
Following radiotherapy, it's likely you will have some side effects. These occur because radiotherapy temporarily damages some healthy cells as well as destroying cancerous ones.
Possible side effects of radiotherapy for vaginal cancer include:
- sore, red skin – similar to sunburn
- vaginal discharge
- pain while passing urine
- feeling sick
- narrowing of the vagina (see below)
- early menopause and infertility (see below)
Read more about the side effects of radiotherapy.
Effects on sex
Radiotherapy may cause you to lose interest in sex, particularly if you have side effects such as tiredness or nausea, or you are anxious about your condition or treatment.
Radiotherapy can also cause scar tissue to form in your vagina, which can make it narrower and means having sex is difficult or uncomfortable.
If you feel up to it, your care team may suggest having sex regularly during treatment to help stop this happening. Devices called dilators, which are inserted into the vagina, can also be used after treatment stops to help stop your vagina getting narrower.
You may also experience some vaginal dryness or pain when having sex. If this happens, you can try using lubricants or asking your care team about possible treatments.
Menopause and fertility
If you have external radiotherapy to your pelvis, you may experience an early menopause (if you have not had the menopause already).
This means you will no longer be able to have children (infertility). This is can be very upsetting, particularly for younger women who wanted to have children. Before your treatment, your care team will explain whether this is a risk and discuss the options and support available.
There are four main types of surgery used to treat vaginal cancer:
- partial vaginectomy – removing the upper section of your vagina
- radical vaginectomy – removing all of your vagina and pelvic lymph nodes
- radical vaginectomy and radical hysterectomy – removing all of your vagina, womb, ovaries, fallopian tubes and pelvic lymph nodes
- pelvic exenteration – removing all of your vagina and surrounding tissue, including the bladder and/or rectum (back passage)
A partial vaginectomy can be used to treat stage 1 vaginal cancer, when radiotherapy has failed to remove the cancer or where a woman prefers to have surgery rather than radiotherapy because she still wants to have children.
Your surgeon will remove the cancerous section of the vagina, as well as some surrounding healthy tissue, just in case a small number of cancerous cells have spread.
Your surgeon will repair the defect in the vaginal wall, which means you will be able to have sex after you have recovered from the operation.
A radical vaginectomy may be used to treat cases of advanced stage 1 and stage 2 vaginal cancer. The surgeon will remove most, or all, of your vagina.
A plastic surgeon may be able to make a new vagina using skin, muscle and tissue taken from another part of your body – usually one of your thighs or buttocks.
You will still be able to have sex after a vaginal reconstruction, although you will need to use lubricant, because the lining of the new vagina cannot make the mucus it would naturally make.
A radical hysterectomy is often performed at the same time as a radical vaginectomy.
During a radical hysterectomy, all of the reproductive system is removed, including the womb, fallopian tubes, ovaries and nearby lymph nodes.
Read more about hysterectomies, including how to prepare for the operation and your recovery.
Pelvic exenteration is used in a few cases to treat recurrent or advanced cases of vaginal cancer.
If you no longer have a bladder, you will need another way to pass urine. One solution is for your surgeon to make a hole (stoma) in your tummy. A bag is then attached to the stoma so that urine can be passed into it. The bag is known as a urostomy bag.
Similarly, as you may no longer have a rectum, you will need a way to pass stools (faeces) out of your digestive system. Another stoma can be made and attached to a collection bag, known as a colostomy bag.
Read more about colostomies.
A vaginal reconstruction can be carried out after a pelvic exenteration. It may also be possible to reconstruct your rectum and attach it to the remaining section of your bowel once this has healed. In this case, you will only need a temporary colostomy.
As pelvic exenteration is major surgery, it may take you several months to fully recover from the operation.
Chemotherapy is usually used in combination with radiotherapy or to control symptoms when a cure is not possible (palliative chemotherapy). It's usually given by injection (intravenous chemotherapy).
Like radiotherapy, the powerful cancer-killing medicines used in chemotherapy can also damage healthy tissue and cause a range of side effects. Side effects of chemotherapy for vaginal cancer can include:
- feeling sick
- increased risk of infections
- hair loss
Read more about the side effects of chemotherapy.
Coping with treatment
Treatment for vaginal cancer can have a significant emotional impact, particularly for young women who experience an early menopause as a result of treatment.
The removal of some or all of the vagina can be traumatic for pre- and post-menopausal women alike, and some women feel less "womanly" than they did before. It's not uncommon to feel a sense of loss and bereavement after treatment. In some women, this may lead to depression.
You may find it helpful to talk to other women who have had similar treatment. Your GP or hospital staff may be able to recommend a suitable local support group. Charities can also help:
The Hysterectomy Association provides hysterectomy support services, including a one-to-one telephone support line, counselling and "preparing for hysterectomy" workshops.
If feelings of depression persist, speak to your GP about the treatment and support available.
As vaginal cancer is rare, you may be asked to take part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are an important way for healthcare professionals to learn more about the best way to treat specific conditions.
Most clinical trials involve comparing a new treatment with an existing treatment to determine whether the new treatment is more or less effective. If you do receive a new treatment, there is no guarantee it will be more effective than an existing one.
You can find out whether there are currently any clinical trials for vaginal cancer, or ask your care team if there are clinical trials in your area. Your care team can explain the advantages and disadvantages of taking part.
Common questions about cancer answered
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Page last reviewed: 05/02/2015
Next review due: 05/02/2017