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Tests for vaginal cancer

Women discussing vaginal cancer

This page is about tests for vaginal cancer.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Tests for vaginal cancer

You usually begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you and ask about your general health and your symptoms. If your doctor thinks you need further tests, they will refer you to a specialist at your local hospital (a gynaecologist).

Your specialist will ask you about your medical history and symptoms. The specialist will then examine you and may arrange for you to have other tests.

Pelvic examination

Your specialist will want to examine your tummy (abdomen) and pelvis and then do an internal examination. The doctor puts in a speculum to open up the vagina. And they look through a colposcope to see the inside of your vagina and your cervix. A colposcope is a type of microscope.

Biopsies

Your doctor may want you to have a biopsy. This means removing a sample of the tissue from the affected area. A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope. You may be able to have a biopsy done with a local anaesthetic. If you need a general anaesthetic you might need to stay in hospital overnight.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the diagnosing vaginal cancer section.

 

At the GP

If you think you might have a vaginal cancer, you usually begin by seeing your GP or nurse practitioner. They will examine you and ask about your general health. They will also ask you about your symptoms, including 

  • What the symptoms are
  • How long you have had them
  • When you get them
  • Whether anything you do makes them better or worse

If your doctor or nurse thinks you need further tests, they will refer you to a specialist at your local hospital (a gynaecologist).

Some women do not have any symptoms. You may be referred to a specialist if an abnormality is picked up on a routine examination, or after investigations for an abnormal smear test result. 

 

At the hospital

Your specialist will ask you about your medical history and symptoms. The specialist will then examine you and may arrange for you to have other tests. You may have any of the tests below.

 

Pelvic examination

Your specialist will want to examine your tummy (abdomen) and pelvis and then do an internal examination. This will probably involve using a speculum and colposcope to see inside your vulva and vagina. You have the examination in the outpatient clinic. You lie on your back on the couch with your knees bent. Your legs can rest on padded supports.

The doctor or specialist nurse gently puts in a speculum to open up the vagina. And they look through the colposcope to see the inside of your vagina and your cervix. The colposcope stays outside the vagina. But it magnifies the cells to allow the doctor to look for any abnormality that may be too small to see with the naked eye.

You may find it uncomfortable to be in one position for quite a long period of time. But colposcopy itself is not usually painful. These procedures may make you feel embarrassed. Most doctors ask a female nurse to be present during these examinations. This can help you to feel more comfortable. If the doctor does not offer, then you can ask for a woman to be with you during this examination.

 You can read more here about what happens during a cervical screening test

 

Having a biopsy

Your doctor may want you to have a biopsy. This means removing a sample of the tissue from the affected area of the vagina. A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope to see if you have precancerous changes (VAIN) or vaginal cancer. If you do have vaginal cancer, looking at the cells under the microscope will show which type of vaginal cancer it is. Your doctor may also suggest biopsies of the neck of the womb (cervix) or vulva to rule out these types of cancer, both of which can spread to the vagina.

You may have an excision biopsy or a punch biopsy.

An excision biopsy is a minor operation. You may be able to have it done in an outpatient clinic using local anaesthetic. But you may need a general anaesthetic for your biopsy operation. If so, you might need to stay in hospital overnight.

A punch biopsy can be done as an outpatient using local anaesthetic. The doctor takes away a small piece of the vaginal lining.

You can read more about  vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN)  and about the different  types of vaginal cancer.

 

After the tests

Your specialist may give you an appointment to go back to the hospital when your test results have come through. Or you may arrange for your specialist to contact you at home. The results may take a little time. You are bound to feel anxious. It may help if you ask your specialist how long the results are likely to take. Then you will have some idea of how long you will have to wait.

While you are waiting for the results it may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel. Or you may want to contact a cancer support group to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience. Look at the vaginal cancer organisations list for an organisation that can give you information about support groups or counselling services near you.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.

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Updated: 14 October 2013