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Vaginal Cancer

The gynecologic cancer specialists at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center understand that an accurate and quick diagnosis of vaginal cancer is key to offering the best treatment options in a timely and efficient manner.

We have extensive experience in gynecologic surgery and also oversee all medical oncology treatments for vaginal cancer, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Our gynecologic cancer team is made up of specialists in surgery, radiology, pathology and radiation oncology who work together to develop customized treatment plans for each patient with vaginal cancer.

What is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the vagina. The vagina, also called the birth canal, is the hollow tube that runs from the vulva (outside genitalia) up to the cervix (the lower part of the uterus, or womb).

Vaginal cancer is relatively uncommon, representing only about 2 percent of all gynecologic cancers.

Types of vaginal cancer

Most cancerous vaginal tumors occur when another cancer, such as cervical cancer or endometrial cancer, spreads. Called secondary vaginal cancer, it can be caused by either direct growth of the tumor into the vagina (from the rectum or bladder) or from a distant site (such as the breast) through the bloodstream or lymph nodes.

There are three types of vaginal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer. It 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.
  • Adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer begins in glandular cells that line the vagina and make and release fluids, such as mucus. Adenocarcinoma is more common after menopause and is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. A rare type of adenocarcinoma is linked to exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the womb.
  • Melanoma and sarcoma. Other rare types of vaginal cancer include melanoma, seen in the lower or outer portion of the vagina, and sarcoma. Melanoma and sarcoma account for only 2 percent to 3 percent of vaginal cancer cases, respectively.