Vaginal cancer is a very rare, slow-growing cancer found in the vagina. It’s commonly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

Vaginal cancer is cancer found in the vagina. The most common type — squamous cell carcinoma — is found in the walls of the vagina. Other types that affect the vagina include adenocarcinoma, melanoma, and sarcoma.

While vaginal cancer is rare, it can affect certain groups of people at higher rates than others.

Learn more about vaginal cancer.

More than half of all cases of vaginal cancer are caused by HPV.

HPV

HPV is transmitted between people through close skin-to-skin contact, sex (vaginal, anal, or oral), and sharing personal items, like sex toys. When a person contracts HPV, their body may stop producing certain proteins. These proteins are important for fueling a gene that suppresses tumor growth and prevents cancer.

Diethylstilbestrol

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a synthetic form of estrogen that was often prescribed between 1940 and 1971 for miscarriages and preterm delivery. People who had exposure to DES in utero may have an increased risk of developing clear cell carcinoma and precancerous conditions, such as vaginal adenosis.

Other cancers

Vaginal cancer may also result from other cancers spreading to your vagina. Cancer found in both your cervix and vagina is called cervical cancer. Cancer found in both your vulva and vagina is called vulvar cancer. Vaginal cancer may also spread from cancer that originated in your uterus (endometrial cancer).

Again, vaginal cancer is very rare, especially in women under 75 years old. That said, it’s important to understand that you can get vaginal cancer even if you’ve had a hysterectomy or have reached menopause.

Risk factors include:

Regular Pap smears and vaginal exams can help screen for precancerous cells and cancer. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends being tested every 3–5 years.

The HPV vaccine can protect against vaginal, cervical, and vulvar cancers. This vaccine is offered to preteens between ages 11 and 12. Doctors may also recommend it for people up to 26 years old and, in certain cases, up to 45 years old.

And speak with a doctor about any smoking or drinking habits. Both smoking and heavy drinking to be potential risk factors for developing vaginal cancer and other cancers.

Vaginal cancer is typically slow growing. This means that if you discover it early, the chances for effectively treating the cancer are good. Treatment involves a combination of radiation therapy and surgery. In more severe cases, you may also receive chemotherapy.

The 5-year survival rate for vaginal cancer is 84% for stage 1, 75% for stage 2, and 57% for more advanced cancer.

Early detection is key. The longer the cancer progresses, the more serious and widespread it may become.

Vaginal cancer is also more serious depending on the type. The rarest and most aggressive type is melanoma. Researchers explain that mortality rates are highest in people older than 80 years old with vaginal melanoma.

A recent study uncovered that stress hormones may have an influence on gynecological cancers. The relationship isn’t totally understood, but researchers believe neurotransmitters in the brain are released by the sympathetic nervous system. When you’re chronically stressed, these chemical messengers may encourage cancer growth.

Untreated vaginal cancer can spread to other parts of your body, such as the lymph nodes.

Other complications may arise after treatment with radiation. They include edema (fluid retention and swelling), erythema (redness and irritation of the skin), and vaginal mucositis (soreness with or without ulcers). These complications typically get better within a few months after treatment.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can feel overwhelming. Reach out to your family and friends during this time. A network of support can make a big difference in how you feel emotionally and how you manage your daily life during treatment.

Other tips for coping:

  • Consider counseling since you’ll likely experience a range of emotions.
  • Ask your doctor and healthcare team for help and resources.
  • Seek support from family, friends, and support groups (like ones run by the American Cancer Society).
  • Adjust your work and home responsibilities to accommodate treatment.
  • Work with your doctor to address uncomfortable side effects of treatment.
  • Keep up with all your appointments to ensure you stay on top of your physical and mental health.

What does vaginal cancer look like?

Vaginal cancer may look like ulcers, sores, or lumps on the vaginal walls or the vulva.

What are the five warning signs of cervical cancer?

The main symptoms of cervical cancer include:

How can you prevent vulvar cancer?

Getting the HPV vaccine, using condoms to avoid infection, not smoking, and getting regular pelvic exams may all help prevent vulvar cancer.

Vaginal cancer is most often caused by infection with HPV. It may be more common in women with fetal exposure to DES and other risk factors, like previous cancer or a compromised immune system.

While vaginal cancer is rare and slow growing, getting regular Pap smears and vaginal exams can help spot cancer before it spreads to other areas of your body.