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Cervical and Vaginal Cancers
Symptoms and treatment options for cervical and vaginal cancer.
Cervical and vaginal cancer can be scary and overwhelming. It’s important to arm yourself with facts about the symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.
Symptoms of cervical or vaginal cancer
Cervical and vaginal cancer often do not cause early symptoms. They typically are found during routine pelvic exams and Pap tests.
When symptoms occur, they may be caused by cancer or other gynecologic conditions. Possible cancer symptoms include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
- Constipation or changes in bowel function
- General pain in the pelvic area
- Lumps in the cervix or vagina
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain when urinating
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, or if you simply don’t feel right. You know your body -- listen to it. It’s important to rule out or diagnose cancer as early as possible to get the right treatment for your condition.
Team-based care for cervical and vaginal cancer
Our gynecologic cancer specialists provide personalized care based on your specific diagnosis. We will work with you to develop a treatment plan designed around you, your family, and your lifestyle.
We take a team-based care approach. Our team -- which includes oncologists, pathologists, nurses, and geneticists -- reviews all vaginal and cervical cancer cases weekly at an internal tumor board meeting to collaborate on the most effective treatments for each patient.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer develops in the tissues of the cervix, which connects the uterus and vagina. Typically, the disease develops slowly. Over time, the cells can spread throughout the cervix and to surrounding areas.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
There are several risk factors for cervical cancer, many of which are lifestyle choices. These risk factors include:
- Early sexual activity
- History of sexually transmitted infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Many sexual partners
- Weak immune system
You can reduce your risk for cervical cancer by quitting smoking and having routine Pap tests and gynecological exams. Regular Pap tests are the best way to detect cervical cancer early, when it’s most treatable. If you are not in a monogamous relationship, use a condom every time you have sex to reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
Girls and young women can reduce future risk of cervical cancer by getting vaccinated against HPV and delaying the first time they have sex. Talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine.
Diagnosing cervical cancer
An abnormal Pap test can signal cervical cancer or another disease or infection. During a Pap test, cells are scraped from the cervix. A specialist then examines the cells under a microscope to look for abnormalities.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, an incredibly common sexually transmitted infection. Most women who have had sexual intercourse likely have contracted HPV and didn’t even know it. HPV usually causes no symptoms or damage to the body. However, in a small percentage of women, the virus causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to turn into cancer cells.
If your doctor suspects cervical cancer, they’ll ask about your medical history, conduct a pelvic exam, and perform additional testing, if necessary.
Cervical cancer treatment
Cervical cancer treatment recommendations depend on the stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health and family history. The stage of your cancer helps the doctor recommend an effective course of treatment.
The four stages of cervical cancer are:
- Stage I: Cancer is in the cervix only.
- Stage II: Cancer is in the cervix and nearby tissue, such as the upper part of the vagina.
- Stage III: Cancer has moved beyond the cervix to the pelvic wall or lower portion of the vagina.
- Stage IV: Cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the bladder or rectum, or to farther other areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or bones.
For early stage cervical cancer, your doctor may recommend a hysterectomy, in which the uterus is surgically removed along with the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and cervix, if necessary. Sometimes the lymph nodes are also removed. Radical trichology is another surgical option for patients with early stage cancer who want to become pregnant in the future.
Follow-up care after surgery typically includes physical exams, pelvic exams, Pap smears, X-rays, and laboratory tests.
What is vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the vagina. It is not a common cancer. Data from the American Cancer Society estimates that only 1 of every 1,100 women will develop vaginal cancer in her lifetime.
There are two main types of vaginal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This most common type of vaginal cancer spreads slowly. It usually stays near the vagina, but may spread to the lungs, liver, or bone.
- Adenocarcinoma: This cancer begins in glandular cells in the lining of the vagina. Adenocarcinoma is more likely than squamous cell cancer to spread to the lungs and lymph nodes.
Risk factors for vaginal cancer
The main risk factors for vaginal cancer are being older than 60 and being exposed to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth. Some pregnant women in the 1950s were prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage.
You also may be at increased risk if you have had human papillomavirus (HPV), a history of abnormal cells in your cervix or uterus, or a history of cervical or uterine cancer. In some cases, women who have had a hysterectomy for problems that affect the uterus also may be at increased risk.
Diagnosing vaginal cancer
An abnormal Pap test is the first red flag for vaginal cancer. If your doctor suspects cancer, they may perform a colposcopy, which is when the doctor uses a tool called a colposcope to closely examine the vagina. The doctor also may recommend a biopsy. During this procedure, the doctor will remove a small piece of tissue and examine it under a microscope to determine if the cells are cancerous.
Just like when we diagnose cervical cancer, we’ll also ask about your medical history, perform a pelvic exam, and recommend additional testing, if necessary.
Vaginal cancer treatment
Treatment recommendations will depend on your family history, your general health, and the stage of your cancer. Your cancer stage helps the doctor determine the most effective treatment for you.
The four stages of vaginal cancer are:
- Stage I: Cancer is in the vagina only.
- Stage II: Cancer is in the connective tissues next to the vagina.
- Stage III: Cancer has spread to the pelvic wall or into the lymph nodes.
- Stage IV: Cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the rectum or bladder, or to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, or bones.
Your doctor likely will recommend minimally invasive surgery for vaginal cancer. Depending on your condition, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy remaining cancer cells after surgery. Follow-up care typically includes physical and pelvic exams, Pap tests, X-rays or other imaging tests, and laboratory tests.