Find out about vaginal cancer, where it starts and how common it is.
The vagina is the elastic, muscular passage that leads from the neck of the womb (cervix) to the vulva. It is about 7.5 to 10 cms long. The cervix is at the bottom of the womb. The vulva is on the outside the body and forms the skin folds around the entrance to the vagina.
The vagina is the opening that allows blood to drain out each month during your menstrual period. The walls of the vagina are normally in a relaxed state. They touch each other and contain many folds. The vagina opens and expands during sexual intercourse.
Small glands in the cervix produce mucus to keep the vaginal lining moist. The vagina stretches during childbirth to allow the baby to come out.
Where it starts
The vagina is made up of tissue layers, including:
- epithelial tissue – a thin layer made up of squamous cells that line the vaginal wall
- connective tissue – a layer underneath the epithelium, made of fibrous tissue with muscle, lymph vessels and nerves
The most common type of vaginal cancer starts in the squamous cells. It is called squamous cell carcinoma. A rarer type starts in the gland cells in the lining of the vagina. This is called adenocarcinoma.
Cancers that starts in the connective tissue of the vagina are extremely rare. They are called sarcomas.
Nearby lymph nodes
There are lymph nodes around the vagina (also called lymph glands). They’re small bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. They drain fluid from the tissues around the vagina and help to control infection by trapping and killing bacteria and viruses. The nearest lymph nodes are usually the first place that cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour.
Your specialist may remove some of the lymph nodes during surgery. These will be closely looked at under a microscope to see if they contain cancer cells. This helps your specialist stage the cancer, so they can decide on the most suitable treatment for you.
How common it is
Vaginal cancer is very rare. Around 250 women are diagnosed in the UK each year. Only around 1 in 100 cancers of the female sex organs (1%) are vaginal cancers.
Cancer starting in another place in the body can spread to the vagina, such as:
- cancer of the cervix
- womb cancer
- bowel cancer
This isn’t the same as cancer starting in the vagina.
Cancer starting in the vagina is known as primary vaginal cancer. Cancer that’s spread from another place in the body is called secondary cancer.
Who gets it
We don't know the exact causes of vaginal cancer. It is more common in older women, nearly half of all women diagnosed are over the age of 70. It is very rare in women younger than 40.
Risk factors include:
- HPV infection
- abnormal changes to the cells in the inner lining of the vagina (VAIN)
- weakened immune system