Vaginal cancer is an uncommon disease in which cancer cells grow from the cells of the vaginal lining. The vagina is a tube that connects the vulva (external female genitals) to the cervix (lower end of the uterus). The vagina is also called the “birth canal.”

Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case, vaginal cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor, forms. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor does not invade or spread.

There are several types of vaginal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma—occurs in the lining of the vagina
  • Adenocarcinoma—occurs in the area of the vagina lined with cells similar to those in the glands of the cervix and uterus
    • A special type of this cancer, called clear cell adenocarcinoma, occurs in women who were exposed to a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in their mother’s womb. This drug was introduced in the late 1930s and no longer used after 1971, so the incidence of this particular type of adenocarcinoma is expected to decline.
  • Melanoma—usually affects lower or outer portion of the vagina
  • Sarcoma—forms deep in the walls of the vagina, not on the surface

Female Reproductive Organs
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The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown. However, several risk factors are known.