Vaginal Cancer - Introduction

About the vagina

The vagina or birth canal is the opening through which menstrual fluid leaves a woman’s body and babies are born. It is connected to the cervix, which is the opening of the uterus or womb, and to the vulva (folds of skin around its opening).

Usually, the vagina is in a collapsed position with its walls touching. The walls have many folds that allow the vagina to open and expand during sexual intercourse and vaginal childbirth. The vaginal lining is kept moist by mucus released from glands in the cervix.

The vaginal walls have a thin layer of cells called the epithelium, which contains cells called squamous epithelial cells. The vaginal wall, underneath the epithelium, is made up of connective tissue, involuntary muscle tissue, lymph vessels, and nerves.

About vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is an uncommon cancer of the female reproductive system. Vaginal cancer begins when healthy cells in the vagina change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor is a tumor that can grow but will not spread. There are 4 types of vaginal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can develop in the cells lining the vagina, most often in the area closest to the cervix. Squamous cell carcinoma makes up 85% to 90% of vaginal cancers. It develops slowly through a precancerous condition (changes in cells that may, but do not always, become cancer) called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VAIN. 

  • Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma begins in the vaginal gland tissue. It makes up about 5% to 10% of vaginal cancers.

  • Clear cell adenocarcinoma. This cancer occurs in women whose mothers took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971. It is estimated that 1 woman out of 1,000 women exposed to DES will develop vaginal cancer.

  • Melanoma. Melanoma can begin on the skin of the vagina or other internal organs. Melanoma is usually found on skin exposed to the sun and often appears as a dark-colored tumor on the lower or outer parts of the vagina. Learn more about melanoma.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the way many people are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to continue reading in this guide.