Wed | Jun 29, 2022

Early detection of vaginal cancer is key

Published:Wednesday | May 4, 2022 | 12:10 AMKeisha Hill/Senior Gleaner Writer

Vaginal cancer happens when cancerous cells grow in your vagina. A woman’s vagina, the birth canal is a channel that goes from the opening of the uterus to the outside of the body. Many kinds of cancer can spread to the vagina from elsewhere, but cancer that starts here is rare.

Some cases of vaginal cancer do not have a clear cause, but most are linked to infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV. This is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). An HPV infection most often goes away on its own, but if it lingers, it can lead to cervical and vaginal cancer.

According to Dr Jordan Hardie, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Contemporary Medical Affiliates, a diagnosis of early-stage vaginal cancer has the best chance for a cure. Vaginal cancer that spreads beyond the vagina is much more difficult to treat.

“It is not clear what causes vaginal cancer. In general, cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic mutation that turns normal cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time,” Dr Hardie said.

Hardie, who presented at the Dr Joseph St Elmo Hall Memorial Lecture on Cervical Cancer, on the topic, ‘Matters Below the Cervix’, said cancer cells grow and multiply out of control, but they do not die.

“The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass. These cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from an initial tumour to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasise),” he said.

According to Hardie, vaginal cancer often does not cause symptoms. Your doctor might find it during a routine exam or Pap smear. If you have symptoms, they can include unusual bleeding from your vagina, watery or bad-smelling discharge from your vagina, pain in your pelvis, pain when having sex, pain when peeing, peeing more than usual, constipation, and a lump in your vagina.


“If you notice any of these things, it does not mean you have vaginal cancer. You could just have an infection, but it is important to get it checked out. If a pelvic exam or a Pap smear shows signs of a problem, your doctor may want to take a closer look by doing a colposcopy. They will use a lighted magnifying tool called a colposcope to check your vagina and cervix for anything unusual,” Dr Hardie said.

They might also take out a bit of tissue, he said, so a specialist can look at it under a microscope. This is called a biopsy.

Vaginal cancer is not common. There are two main types of vaginal cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma, cancer that forms in the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the vagina. Squamous cell vaginal cancer spreads slowly and usually stays near the vagina, but may spread to the lungs, liver, or bone. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer.

Adenocarcinoma is also a cancer that begins in glandular cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the vagina make and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinoma is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes.

A rare type of adenocarcinoma or clear cell adenocarcinoma is linked to being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth. Adenocarcinomas that are not linked with being exposed to DES are most common in women after menopause.

According to Dr Hardie, you and your doctor will decide on treatment based on many things, including how close the cancer is to other organs, its stage, whether you have had radiation treatment in your pelvic area, and whether you have had a hysterectomy to remove your uterus.

“Your doctor will probably recommend one or more of treatments, including surgery. This is the most common treatment. Your doctor may use a laser to cut out tissue or growths. In some cases, they might remove all or part of your vagina. You may need a hysterectomy to remove your cervix or other organs,” he said.

There is no sure way to prevent vaginal cancer. However, you may reduce your risk if you undergo regular pelvic exams and Pap smear tests. Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine, as receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of vaginal cancer and other HPV-related cancers. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.

Also, do not smoke. If you smoke, quit. If you do not smoke, do not start. Smoking increases the risk of vaginal cancer.


SOURCES: Jamaica Cancer Society, Miami Cancer Institute, Baptist Health South Florida