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Vaginal melanoma

What vaginal melanoma cancer is, how it starts and what treatment you might have.

What it is

Vaginal melanoma is a rare cancer. It develops from the cells in the skin that produce pigment, which gives the skin its colour. It usually develops in the lower third of the vagina and mostly in women in their 50s.

How it starts

Melanoma starts in cells called melanocytes. These are pigment producing cells found mostly in the skin.

Most melanomas develop in parts of the body exposed to the sun. But you can get them anywhere, including body organs, because there are melanocytes in these areas too.

It’s not clear why melanomas can form in parts of the body that are not exposed to the sun.

How common it is

Vaginal melanoma is rare. Only about 3 out of 100 vaginal cancers (3%) are melanoma. The average age women are diagnosed with this type of cancer is 55 years.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • bleeding inbetween periods or after the menopause
  • bleeding after sex
  • vaginal discharge that smells or is blood stained
  • pain during sex
  • a lump or growth in the vagina
  • a vaginal itch that won't go away

About 10 out of 100 women (10%) don't have any symptoms. A doctor may find vaginal melanoma during a routine cervical screening test.

Treatment

The main treatments for vaginal melanoma are surgery, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. You may have treatment as part of a clinical trial where possible.

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where the melanoma is
  • the size of the tumour
  • whether it has spread
  • your general health

Your treatment is planned by a multidisciplinary team (MDT). The team includes a number of different health professionals, including melanoma specialists, specialists in gynaecological cancers and specialist cancer nurses.

Follow up

You will have regular check ups once you finish your treatment. Your doctor will examine you and ask about your general health. This is your chance to ask questions and to tell your doctor if anything is worrying you.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

Research and clinical trials

There may be fewer clinical trials for rare types of cancer than for more common types.

It is hard to organise and run trials for rare cancers. Getting enough patients is critical to the success of a trial. The results won't be strong enough to prove that one type of treatment is better than another if the trial is too small.

The International Rare Cancers Initiative (IRCI) aims to develop more research into new treatments for rare cancers. They are designing trials that involve several countries so that more people will be available to enter trials.

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of a rare cancer can be especially difficult, both practically and emotionally. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.

Talking to other people

Talking to other people who have the same thing can also help.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

The Rare Cancer Alliance offer support and information to people affected by rare cancers.

Last reviewed: 
10 Apr 2018
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

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