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- Patient Comments: Vaginal Cancer - Risks and Causes
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- Vaginal cancer facts*
- What is vaginal cancer?
- What are causes and risk factors for vaginal cancer?
- What are symptoms and signs of vaginal cancer?
- What tests are used to diagnose vaginal cancer?
- What is the prognosis for vaginal cancer?
- How is staging determined for vaginal cancer?
- What is the treatment for vaginal cancer?
- Treatment options by stage
- Treatment options for recurrent vaginal cancer
- Where can I find more information about vaginal cancer?
What are causes and risk factors for vaginal cancer?
Age and exposure to the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth affect a woman's risk of developing vaginal cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors for vaginal cancer include the following:
- Being aged 60 or older.
- Being exposed to DES while in the mother's womb. In the 1950s, the drug DES was given to some pregnant women to prevent miscarriage (premature birth of a fetus that cannot survive). Women who were exposed to DES before birth have an increased risk of developing vaginal cancer. Some of these women develop a rare form of cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
- Having human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.
- Having a history of abnormal cells in the cervix or cervical cancer.
What are symptoms and signs of vaginal cancer?
Possible signs of vaginal cancer include pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Vaginal cancer often does not cause early symptoms and may be found during a routine Pap test. When symptoms occur they may be caused by vaginal cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.
- Pain in the pelvic area.
- A lump in the vagina.
What tests are used to diagnose vaginal cancer?
Tests that examine the vagina and other organs in the pelvis are used to detect (find) and diagnose vaginal cancer.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Pelvic exam: An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and places the other hand over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test or Pap smear of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.
- Pap smear: A procedure to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and vagina. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the cervix and vagina. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal. This procedure is also called a Pap test.
- Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues from the vagina and cervix so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If a Pap smear shows abnormal cells in the vagina, a biopsy may be done during a colposcopy.
- Colposcopy: A procedure in which a colposcope (a lighted, magnifying instrument) is used to check the vagina and cervix for abnormal areas. Tissue samples may be taken using a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.