Treatment for cancer of the vagina
The main treatment for vaginal cancer is surgery. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also be used. When used together, they are called chemoradiation. Your doctors will plan your treatment and consider the stage of the cancer, your age and general health.
The aim of the surgery is to remove the cancer. The type of surgery you have will depend on the size and position of the cancer. You may need surgery such as:
Vaginectomy: In this surgery, your vagina is removed and also the nearby tissues.
Radical hysterectomy: In this surgery, your womb, cervix and upper part of your vagina are removed as well as the nearby tissues.
Pelvic exenteration: If the cancer has spread beyond your vagina, the surgery may involve removing the affected organs. For example, your cervix or part of your lower bowel or bladder.
Vaginal reconstruction: After a vaginectomy or pelvic exenteration, you may need skin grafts and plastic surgery. This is known as vaginal reconstruction.
Lymphadenectomy: In this surgery, the lymph nodes near your vagina are removed.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to cure or control cancer. It is often given after surgery (adjuvant) and can be used alone or with radiotherapy. The drugs usually used in the treatment of vaginal cancer include:
See our Understanding Chemotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells in your vagina. It can be given before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant). There are also different ways to give radiotherapy. You may be given it internally or externally. Please see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information on radiotherapy.
Advanced cancer means that your cancer has spread from the area where it first started. If it has spread to the area around the vagina, it is called local spread. It can also spread to other areas of the body including the bones and brain. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer. It is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment is given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. This can be done for a long time. Treatments can involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
You may also be seen by the palliative care team at this time. This team is there to help with any symptoms you have and to support you and your family throughout your treatment.
The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Your doctor and nurse will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment. Some treatments may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. If your lymph nodes are removed, you may develop swelling in your groin or legs. This is called lymphoedema.
Radiotherapy to the pelvis may cause narrowing or shortness of your vagina. There may also be long-term changes such as pain, bleeding, swelling, and a change in bowel habits.
Most women feel shocked and upset at the thought of surgery to the vagina. The trauma of surgery and the cancer diagnosis as well as the treatment can all affect your sex life. Your nurse or doctor can discuss this further with you and offer advice.
For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklets Understanding Chemotherapy, Understanding Radiotherapy, Coping with Fatigue, Diet and Cancer and Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer, all available to download under the "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page.
If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.
Call our National Cancer Helpline
Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm