Symptoms and diagnosis of vaginal cancer

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Symptoms of vaginal cancer

Many vaginal cancers do not cause any symptoms in the early stages. The symptoms of vaginal cancer include:

  • Vaginal bleeding, often after sex.
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge that may smell or be blood stained.
  • Pain during sex
  • A lump or swelling
  • An itch in the vagina that won’t go away
  • Frequency and discomfort when passing urine
  • Pain in the back passage (rectum)

All these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, but it’s important to go to the GP and get any unusual changes checked out. 

Symptoms of advanced vaginal cancer

  • A feeling of been unable to fully empty your bowels
  • Swelling in one or both legs
  • General pelvic pain that is constant and won’t go away
  • Constipation

Can I be screened for vaginal cancer?

Testing for vaginal cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no vaginal cancer screening programme in Ireland at present. If you are concerned about vaginal cancer, talk to your GP.

Diagnosing vaginal cancer

Your family doctor (GP) will talk to you about your symptoms. He or she will probably need to examine the area. This may include an internal exam. An instrument called a speculum is gently put into your vagina (like when you have a smear test) to open it slightly so that the doctor can do a thorough examination.  

Your GP will refer you to hospital if they think you need more tests. Other tests you might have include:

Pelvic exam: A pelvic examination is where a doctor or nurse examines your abdomen (tummy) and pelvis. Your doctor might also do an internal vaginal exam by putting a gloved finger into your vagina to check for any abnormal changes.

Colposcopy: The doctor uses a colposcope to look more closely at your vagina. A colposcope is a type of microscope with a very bright light that helps your doctor to check for any abnormal changes. It doesn’t go inside you. 

Biopsy: A sample of tissue from your vagina is taken and looked at under a microscope in the lab to see if there are any cancer cells. The biopsy can be done during a colposcopy, with a local anaesthetic to numb the area. You may have an excision biopsy or a punch biopsy.

Excision biopsy: Removes the whole area of abnormal tissue. Depending on the size of the area removed you may need to have stitches, which will dissolve over a period of weeks. 

Punch biopsy: Removes a small piece of the abnormal area. You won’t need stitches.

A gynaecologist is a doctor who specialises in treating problems with women’s reproductive systems, e.g. vagina, vulva, womb (uterus) and ovaries.

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