Introduction 

Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer that begins in the vagina. Around 260 new cases are diagnosed in the UK each year.

Cancer that begins in the vagina is called primary vaginal cancer. Cancer that begins in another part of the body – such as the cervix, womb or ovaries – and spreads to the vagina is known as secondary vaginal cancer.

This topic is about primary vaginal cancer. There are separate topics on cervical cancer, ovarian cancer and womb cancer.

Signs and symptoms

The most common symptom of vaginal cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. This includes:

Other symptoms can include:

See your GP if you experience any abnormal vaginal bleeding, changes in your usual pattern of periods (such as irregular periods or heavier periods than usual), or problems urinating.

While it's highly unlikely that these symptoms are caused by vaginal cancer, they should still be investigated by your GP. Read more about diagnosing vaginal cancer.

What causes vaginal cancer?

The exact causes of vaginal cancer are unknown, but things that may increase your risk of developing it include:

  • being infected with a particularly persistent type of the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be spread during sex
  • your age seven out of every 10 cases of vaginal cancer affect women over 60, although some rare types can affect teenage girls and women in their twenties
  • a previous history of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) – abnormal cells in the vagina or cervix that can sometimes become cancerous

As there is a possible link with HPV, it may be possible to reduce your risk of vaginal cancer by practising safe sex. Read more advice on preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The HPV vaccination, which is now routinely offered to girls who are 12 to 13 years old, provides protection against two strains of HPV thought to be responsible for most cases of vaginal and cervical cancer.

Read more about the causes of vaginal cancer.

How vaginal cancer is treated

Treatment for vaginal cancer depends on which part of your vagina is affected and how far the cancer has spread (known as the "stage").

The main treatments for vaginal cancer are:

  • radiotherapy – radiation is used to destroy the cancerous cells
  • surgery to remove the cancerous cells
  • chemotherapy – medication is used to kill the cancerous cells; this is often used in combination with radiotherapy

These treatments can cause both short- and long-term side effects that should be discussed with your care team before treatment begins.

Read more about treating vaginal cancer.

Outlook

The chances of vaginal cancer being cured depend on things such as the stage at which it was diagnosed, your age and your general health.

Overall, around six in every 10 women with vaginal cancer will live for at least five years after diagnosis.

Around 110 women die from vaginal cancer every year in the UK.

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Page last reviewed: 05/02/2015

Next review due: 01/02/2018