Cancer of the vagina (vaginal cancer)

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer of the vagina, we can provide the information you need, from understanding the cancer itself, to choosing the right treatment, to finding support.

Cancer of the vagina is also known as vaginal cancer.

What you should know about vaginal cancer

  • Cancer of the vagina is when normal cells in the vagina change and grow in an abnormal way. They can form a malignant tumour. Cancer of the vagina is also known as vaginal cancer
  • The cause of vaginal cancer is unknown. But your chance of getting it increases if you over 60 years, have cell changes due to ongoing human papilloma virus (HPV) infections, had previous radiotherapy to the pelvis, or took the hormone drug DES in a past pregnancy.
  • The main symptoms are vaginal bleeding (often after sex), abnormal vaginal discharge, pain after sex, a swelling or lump, and an itch that won’t go away.
  • Vaginal cancer is diagnosed by tests such as a pelvic exam, a colposcopy and a biopsy.
  • The main treatments for vaginal cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

What is the vagina?

The vagina is part of the female reproductive system. It is a muscular tube about 10cm long. It is the passage between the opening of the womb (cervix) and the vulva. The vulva is the folds of skin around the vagina. The vagina has many functions. It opens and expands during sex, it is the birth canal, and it drains blood during a monthly period.

The wall or lining of the vagina has different types of tissue layers. For example, epithelial tissue layer and connective tissue layer. There are also lymph nodes around the vagina to help fight infection.

What is vaginal cancer?

Cancer of the vagina is when normal cells in the vagina change and grow in an abnormal way. These cells can form a malignant tumour. Cancer of the vagina is also called vaginal cancer. When cancer cells develop in the vagina itself, it is called primary vaginal cancer. When cancer has spread into the vagina from another part of your body, it is called secondary vaginal cancer. For example, cancer can spread to the vagina from the neck of the womb (cervix) or the lining of the womb.

There are several types of primary vaginal cancer. Each type is named after the kind of tissue where the cancer cells grow:

  • Squamous cell cancer is the most common type of vaginal cancer. It mostly occurs in the part of the vagina nearest to the cervix.
  • Adenocarcinoma of the vagina is also a very common type. It affects the glandular cells in the vagina.

Other rare types include:

  • Sarcoma of the vagina
  • Melanoma of the vagina
  • Small cell vaginal cancer

How common is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer is very rare. In Ireland, about 16 women are diagnosed with it each year. It is most common in women over the age of 60.

Cancer publications

For booklets and factsheets, including information about cancer types, treatments, side-effects, emotional effects, financial information and more. Visit our publications section.

Useful resources

Note: Links to external websites are listed below. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the contents of external websites.