Tests for vaginal cancer

You usually have a number of tests to check for vaginal cancer. The vagina is the passage that leads from the neck of the womb (cervix) to the vulva. It is part of the female reproductive system Open a glossary item.

Diagram showing the position of the vagina

The tests you might have to check for vaginal cancer include:

  • an examination of your tummy (abdomen), pelvis Open a glossary item and vagina
  • taking a sample of tissue (biopsy)
  • scans such as MRI scan and CT scan

Some people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed when having these tests. They can also be painful which is distressing. Your GP or specialist will try to make you as comfortable as possible.

You can ask for someone else to be in the room with you if you want, to act as a chaperone. A chaperone is a trained health professional such as a nurse. A friend or relative can also stay with you for support and comfort. They can be with you during the test or examination.

Before any examination, your GP or specialist will explain what they are going to do. Ask them if you are not clear about anything.

Tests your GP might do

Most people with symptoms that could be due to cancer start by contacting their GP surgery. Your first appointment may be a telephone appointment. Your GP surgery then might arrange for you to go in and see a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Your GP can do some tests to help them decide whether you need to see a specialist. This usually includes a physical examination and blood tests.

Physical examination

Your GP usually does a physical examination. This includes looking at and feeling your:

  • abdomen

  • pelvis

Your doctor feels for any areas that are swollen or might not feel normal. They might also do a vaginal examination.

Vaginal examination

A vaginal examination is also called a pelvic exam or internal examination. To have this test, you usually lie down with your knees up and legs apart. Your doctor may ask you to rest your legs on padded leg supports.

Your doctor uses a speculum Open a glossary item to gently open your vagina. They look at your vagina to see if there is anything abnormal. They may use a strong light and magnifier.

They may also put two gloved fingers into your vagina and press down on your abdomen at the same time with their other hand. They feel for any lumps or abnormalities. Your doctor may also check your rectum (back passage). They can feel for any lumps or changes in size or shape.

Blood tests

Blood tests can check your general health including:

  • how well your liver and kidneys are working
  • the number of blood cells such as platelets Open a glossary item and red blood cells Open a glossary item

Depending on your symptoms, your GP may also ask you to have other types of blood tests. 

Tests your specialist might do

Depending on the results of your tests, your GP may refer you to a specialist at the hospital. This is usually a gynaecologist.

Your specialist usually does more tests. These include:

  • a colposcopy

  • taking a sample of tissue called a vaginal biopsy

  • a pelvic examination under general anaesthetic

  • MRI scan

  • CT scan

  • PET-CT scan

Colposcopy

A colposcopy is often the first test you have when you go to see a specialist at the hospital. You usually have it in the hospital outpatient clinic.

Your doctor gently puts in a speculum to open up your vagina. Then they use a large magnifying glass called a colposcope to look closely at the vagina and cervix. The colposcope doesn’t go inside you. But by looking through it, your doctor can see changes that may be too small to see with the naked eye.

Your doctor can take biopsies of any abnormal areas. They send these to the laboratory to be looked at under a microscope.

Most people have a colposcopy while they are awake. Tell your doctor if you find the test painful. They will try to make you more comfortable.

Vaginal biopsy

A biopsy is the only way to find out for sure if you have cancer of the vagina or pre cancerous changes. These pre cancerous changes are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN).

There are different ways to have a vaginal biopsy. Your doctor can tell you which biopsy you need. You may have a biopsy during a colposcopy or as a separate test.

You usually have a vaginal biopsy in the outpatient clinic. Your doctor uses a local anaesthetic to numb the area. Some people may need to have a general anaesthetic. This means that you are asleep and won’t feel anything.

Pelvic examination under general anaesthetic

An examination under general anaesthetic is also called an EUA. During this examination, your doctor checks the:

  • vulva

  • vagina

  • cervix

  • womb

  • bladder

  • rectum

Your doctor can also take biopsies during the test if necessary.

Having a general anaesthetic means that you won’t be able to eat or drink for a number of hours before the test. You usually need to stop eating at least 6 hours before the operation. You can usually drink water up to 2 hours beforehand.

MRI scan

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. It uses magnetism and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of your body.

You might have an MRI scan of your abdomen and pelvis. It can help to show where the cancer is in the vagina and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

CT scan

A CT scan uses x-rays and a computer to create detailed pictures of the inside of your body. The computer puts them together to make a 3 dimensional (3D) image.

You might have a CT scan of your abdomen, chest and pelvis to find out if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

PET-CT scan

A PET-CT scan combines a CT scan and a PET scan into one. It gives detailed information about your cancer.

You have a PET-CT scan in the radiology department. It usually takes between 30 and 60 minutes. You might have it to check whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes Open a glossary item close to the vagina, or other parts of the body.

Treatment

The tests you have help your doctor find out if you have vaginal cancer and how far it has grown. This is the stage of the cancer.

This is important because doctors recommend your treatment according to the stage of the cancer.

Coping with vaginal cancer

Cancer affects people in different ways. Coping with a diagnosis of vaginal cancer can be difficult for some people. There is help and support for you and your family.

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