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Vaginal Cancer

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What is vaginal cancer?

The vagina : The vagina is a 3- to 4-inch (7 ½- to 10-cm) tube. It is sometimes called the birth canal. The vagina goes from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) to open up at the vulva (the external genitals). The vagina is lined by a layer of flat cells called squamous cells. This layer of cells is also called epithelium (or epithelial lining) because it is formed by epithelial cells.

The vaginal wall underneath the epithelium contains connective tissue, muscle tissue, lymph vessels, and nerves. The vagina is usually in a collapsed state with its walls touching each other. The vaginal walls have many folds that help the vagina to open and expand during sexual intercourse or the birth of a baby. Glands near the opening of the vagina secrete mucus to keep the vaginal lining moist.

Types of vaginal cancer

There are several types of vaginal cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma : About 70 of every 100 cases of vaginal cancer are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers begin in the squamous cells that make up the epithelial lining of the vagina. These cancers are more common in the upper area of the vagina near the cervix. Squamous cell cancers of the vagina often develop slowly. First, some of the normal cells of the vagina get pre-cancerous changes. Then some of the pre-cancer cells turn into cancer cells. This process can take many years.

The medical term most often used for this pre-cancerous condition is vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). "Intraepithelial" means that the abnormal cells are only found in the surface layer of the vaginal skin (epithelium). There are 3 types of VAIN: VAIN1, VAIN2, and VAIN3, with 3 indicating furthest progression toward a true cancer. VAIN is more common in women who have had their uterus removed (hysterectomy) and in those who were previously treated for cervical cancer or pre-cancer.

In the past, the term dysplasia was used instead of VAIN. This term is used much less now. When talking about dysplasia, there is also a range of increasing progress toward cancer - first, mild dysplasia; next, moderate dysplasia; and then severe dysplasia.

Adenocarcinoma : Cancer that begins in gland cells is called adenocarcinoma. About 15 of every 100 cases of vaginal cancer are adenocarcinomas. The usual type of vaginal adenocarcinoma typically develops in women older than 50. One certain type, called clear cell adenocarcinoma, occurs more often in young women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol(DES) in utero (when they were in their mother’s womb). 

Melanomas develop from pigment-producing cells that give skin its color. These cancers usually are found on sun-exposed areas of the skin but can form on the vagina or other internal organs. About 9 of every 100 cases of vaginal cancer are melanomas. Melanoma tends to affect the lower or outer portion of the vagina. The tumors vary greatly in size, color, and growth pattern. More information about melanoma can be found in our document called Melanoma Skin Cancer.

Sarcoma : A sarcoma is a cancer that begins in the cells of bones, muscles, or connective tissue. Up to 4 of every 100 cases of vaginal cancer are sarcomas. These cancers form deep in the wall of the vagina, not on its surface. There are several types of vaginal sarcomas. Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common type of vaginal sarcoma. It is most often found in children and is rare in adults. A sarcoma called leiomyosarcoma is seen more often in adults. It tends to occur in women older than 50.

Other cancers : Cancers of the vagina are much less common than cancers that start in other organs (such as the cervix, uterus, rectum, or bladder) and then spread to the vagina. These cancers are named after the place where they started. Also, a cancer that involves both the cervix and vagina is considered a cervical cancer. Likewise, if the cancer involves both the vulva and the vagina, it is considered a vulvar cancer.

This document refers only to cancers that start in the vagina, also known as primary vaginal cancers.

What are the risk factors for vaginal cancer?

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers.

There are different kinds of risk factors. Some, such as your age or race, can’t be changed. Others may be related to personal choices such as smoking, drinking, or diet. Some factors influence risk more than others. But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that a person will get the disease. Also, not having any risk factors doesn't mean that you won't get it, either.

Scientists have found that certain risk factors make a woman more likely to develop vaginal cancer. But many women with vaginal cancer do not have any apparent risk factors. And even if a woman with vaginal cancer has one or more risk factors, it is impossible to know for sure how much that risk factor contributed to causing the cancer.

Age : Squamous cell cancer of the vagina occurs mainly in older women. Only 15% of cases are found in women younger than 40. Almost half of cases occur in women who are 70 years old or older.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) : DES is a hormonal drug that was given to some women to prevent miscarriage between 1940 and 1971. Women whose mothers took DES (when pregnant with them) develop clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina or cervix more often than would normally be expected. There is about 1 case of this type of cancer in every 1,000 daughters of women who took DES during their pregnancy. This means that about 99.9% of DES daughters do not develop this cancer.

DES-related clear cell adenocarcinoma is more common in the vagina than the cervix. The risk appears to be greatest in those whose mothers took the drug during their first 16 weeks of pregnancy. Their average age when they are diagnosed is 19 years. Since the use of DES during pregnancy was stopped by the FDA in 1971, even the youngest DES daughters are older than 35 -- past the age of highest risk. But there is no age when a woman is safe from DES-related cancer. Doctors do not know exactly how long women remain at risk.

DES daughters have an increased risk of developing clear cell carcinomas, but women don’t have to be exposed to DES for clear cell carcinoma to develop. In fact, women were diagnosed with this type of cancer before DES was invented.

DES daughters are also more likely to have high grade cervical dysplasia (CIN 3) and vaginal dysplasia (VAIN 3) when compared to women who were never exposed.

Vaginal adenosis : Normally, the vagina is lined by flat cells called squamous cells. In about 40% of women who have already started having periods, the vagina may have one or more areas where it is lined instead by glandular cells. These cells look like those found in the glands of the cervix, the lining of the body of the uterus (endometrium), and the lining of the fallopian tubes. These areas of gland cells are called adenosis. It occurs in nearly all women who were exposed to DES during their mothers' pregnancy. Having adenosis increases the risk of developing clear cell carcinoma, but this cancer is still very rare. The risk of clear cell carcinoma in a woman who has adenosis that is not related to DES is very, very small. Still, many doctors feel that any woman with adenosis should have very careful screening and follow-up.

Human papilloma virus : Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 related viruses. They are called papilloma viruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma. Papillomas -- more commonly known as warts -- are not cancers.

Different HPV types can cause different types of warts in different parts of the body. Some types cause common warts on the hands and feet. Other types tend to cause warts on the lips or tongue.

Certain HPV types can infect the outer female and male genital organs and the anal area, causing raised, bumpy warts. These warts may barely be visible or they may be several inches across. The medical term for genital warts iscondyloma acuminatum. 2 types of HPV, HPV 6 and HPV 11, cause most cases of genital warts. These 2 types are seldom linked to cancer, and so are called low-risk types of HPV.

Other HPV types have been linked with cancers of the cervix and vulva in women, cancer of the penis in men, and cancers of the anus and throat (in men and women). These are known as high-risk types of HPV and include HPV 16, HPV 18, HPV 31, as well as others. Infection with a high-risk HPV may produce no visible signs until pre-cancerous changes or cancer develops.

HPV can be passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact. One way HPV is spread is through sex, including vaginal and anal intercourse and even oral sex.

Up to 90% of vaginal cancers and pre-cancers (vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia -- VAIN) are linked to infection with HPV.

Vaccines have been developed to help prevent infection with some types of HPV. Right now, 2 different HPV vaccines have been approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Gardasil® and Cervarix®. 

Cervical cancer : Having cervical cancer or pre-cancer (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or cervical dysplasia) increases a woman's risk of vaginal squamous cell cancer. This is most likely because cervical and vaginal cancers have similar risk factors, such as HPV infection and smoking.

Some studies suggest that treating cervical cancer with radiation therapy may increase the risk of vaginal cancer, but this was not seen in other studies, and the issue remains unresolved.

Smoking : Smoking cigarettes more than doubles a woman's risk of getting vaginal cancer.

Alcohol : Drinking alcohol might affect the risk of vaginal cancer. A study of alcoholic women found more cases of vaginal cancer than was expected. But this study was flawed because it didn't look at other factors that can alter risk, such as smoking and HPV infection. A more recent study that did take these other risk factors into account found a decreased risk of vaginal cancer in women who do not drink alcohol at all.

Human immunodeficiency virus : Infection with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS, also increases the risk of vaginal cancer.

Vaginal irritation : In some women, stretching of the pelvic ligaments may cause the uterus to sag into the vagina or even extend outside the vagina. This condition is called uterine prolapse and can be treated by surgery or by wearing a pessary, a device to keep the uterus in place. Some studies suggest that long-term (chronic) irritation of the vagina in women using a pessary may slightly increase the risk of squamous cell vaginal cancer. But this association is extremely rare, and no studies have conclusively proven that pessaries actually cause vaginal cancer.

Do we know what causes vaginal cancer?

The exact cause of most vaginal cancers is not known. But scientists have found that it is associated with a number of other conditions described in the section "What are the risk factors for vaginal cancer?" Research is now being done to learn more about how these risk factors cause cells of the vagina to become cancerous.

Research has shown that normal cells make substances called tumor suppressor gene products to keep from growing too rapidly and becoming cancers. High-risk HPV (human papilloma virus) types (like 16 and 18) produce 2 proteins (E6 and E7) that can interfere with the functioning of known tumor suppressor gene products.

As mentioned in the section on risk factors, women exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) as a fetus (that is, their mothers took DES during pregnancy) are at increased risk for developing clear cell carcinoma. DES also increases the likelihood of vaginal adenosis (gland-type cells in the vaginal lining rather than the usual squamous cells). Most women with vaginal adenosis never develop vaginal clear cell carcinoma. However, those with a rare type of adenosis (called atypical tuboendometrial adenosis) do have an increased risk of developing this cancer.

Can vaginal cancer be prevented?

The best way to reduce the risk of vaginal cancer is to avoid known risk factors and to find and treat any vaginal pre-cancers. But since many women with vaginal cancer have no known risk factors, it is not possible to completely prevent this disease.

Avoid HPV exposure : Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for vaginal cancer. In women, HPV infections occur mainly at younger ages and are less common in women over 30. The reason for this is not clear.

HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. HPV can be spread during sex -- including vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral sex -- but sex doesn't have to occur for the infection to spread. All that is needed is for there to be skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV. The virus can be spread through genital-to-genital contact. It is even possible for a genital infection to spread through hand-to-genital contact.

An HPV infection also seems to be able to be spread from one part of the body to another. This means that an infection may start in the cervix and then spread to the vagina and vulva.

It can be very hard to avoid being exposed to HPV. It might be possible to prevent genital HPV infection by not allowing others to have contact with your anal or genital area, but even then there could be other ways to become infected that aren’t yet clear.

Infection with HPV is common, and in most cases the body is able to clear the infection on its own. But in some cases the infection does not go away and becomes chronic. Chronic infection, especially with high-risk HPV types, can eventually cause certain cancers, including vaginal cancer and pre-cancer.

Certain types of sexual behavior increase a woman's risk of getting a genital HPV infection, such as having sex at an early age and having many sex partners. Although women who have had many sexual partners are more likely to get infected with HPV, a woman who has had only one sexual partner can still get infected. This is more likely if she has a partner who has had many sex partners or if her partner is an uncircumcised male.

Delaying sex until you are older can help you avoid HPV. It also helps if you limit your number of sex partners and avoid having sex with someone who has had many other sex partners.

A person can be infected with HPV for years without any symptoms, so the absence of visible warts cannot be used to tell if someone has HPV. Even when someone doesn't have warts (or any other symptom), he (or she) can still be infected with HPV and pass the virus to somebody else.

HPV and men : The 2 main factors influencing the risk of genital HPV infection in men are circumcision and the number of sexual partners. Men who are circumcised (have had the foreskin of the penis removed) have a lower chance of becoming and staying infected with HPV.

Men who have not been circumcised are more likely to be infected with HPV and pass it on to their partners. The reasons for this are unclear. It may be that the skin on the glans of the penis goes through changes that make it more resistant to HPV infection. Another theory is that the surface of the foreskin (which is removed by circumcision) is more easily infected by HPV. Still, circumcision does not completely protect against HPV infection - men who are circumcised can still get HPV and pass it on to their partners.

The risk of a man being infected with HPV is also strongly linked to having many sexual partners (over a man's lifetime).

Condoms and HPV : Condoms ("rubbers") provide some protection against HPV. One study found that when condoms are used correctly every time sex occurs, they can lower the HPV infection rate by about 70%. Condoms cannot protect completely because they don't cover every possible HPV-infected area of the body, such as skin on the genital or anal area. Still, condoms do provide some protection against HPV, and they also protect against HIV and some other sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms (when used by the male partner) also seem to help genital HPV infections clear (go away) faster in both women and men.

Get vaccinated : A vaccine called Gardasil can help protect against infection with HPV subtypes 16 and 18 (as well as 6 and 11). In studies, this vaccine was found to prevent anal and genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11 and to prevent anal, vulvar, vaginal, and cervical cancers and pre-cancers caused by types 16 and 18.

This vaccine can only be used to prevent HPV infection -- it does not help treat an existing infection. To be most effective, the vaccine should be given before a person becomes sexually active.

Gardasil was originally only approved for use in women to prevent cervical cancer, but it is now also approved to prevent vulvar and vaginal cancers and pre-cancers (in women) and to prevent anal cancers and pre-cancers in both men and women. It is also approved to prevent anal and genital warts in both men and women.

Cervarix, another HPV vaccine available in the US, can also be used to prevent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, but so far it has only been shown to help prevent cervical cancers and pre-cancers and not any of the other cancers linked to HPV infection (such as vaginal cancer). Cervarix also seems to protect against some high risk HPV types besides types 16 and 18.

More HPV vaccines are being developed and tested.

Don't smoke : Not smoking is another way to lower vaginal cancer risk. Women who don't smoke are also less likely to develop a number of other cancers, such as those of the lungs, mouth, throat, bladder, kidneys, and several other organs.

Find and treat pre-cancerous conditions :

Most vaginal squamous cell cancers are believed to start out as pre-cancerous changes, called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VAIN. VAIN may be present for years before turning into a true (invasive) cancer. These pre-cancers can sometimes be found as the result of cervical cancer screening (such as with a Pap test or HPV test). If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated, stopping cancer before it really starts.

Still, since vaginal cancer and VAIN are rare, doctors do not often do other tests to look for them in women who do not have symptoms or a history of pre-cancer or cancer of the cervix, vagina, or vulva.

See our documents called Cervical Cancer and Cervical Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection for more information about cervical cancer screening.

How Pap tests and pelvic examinations are done : First, the skin of the outer lips (labia majora) and inner lips (labia minora) is examined for any visible abnormalities. Then the health care professional inserts a speculum, a metal or plastic instrument that keeps the vagina open so that the cervix and vagina can be seen clearly. Next, for the Pap test, a sample of cells and mucus is lightly scraped from the exocervix (outer part) using a spatula or a broom. A small brush is used to sample the endocervix (the inside part of the cervix that is closest to the body of the uterus). Then, the speculum is removed. The doctor then will check the organs of the pelvis by inserting 1 or 2 gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina while he or she palpates (feels) the lower abdomen, just above the pubic bone, with the other. The doctor may do a rectal exam at this time also. It is very important to know that a Pap test is not always done when a pelvic exam is done, so if you are uncertain you should ask if one was done.

Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN; pre-cancer of the vagina) may not be visible during a routine exam of the vagina. But it may be found with a Pap test. Because cervical cancer is much more common than vaginal cancer, Pap test samples are scraped or brushed from the cervix. However, some cells of the vaginal lining are usually also picked up at the same time. That allows cases of VAIN to be found in women whose vaginal lining is not intentionally scraped. Still, the main goal of a Pap test is to find cervical pre-cancers and early cervical cancers, not vaginal cancer or VAIN. That is why women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) stop getting Pap tests, unless the hysterectomy was done as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer (or cancer).

In women whose cervix has been removed by surgery to treat cervical cancer or pre-cancer, Pap test samples may be taken from the lining of the upper vagina to look for cervical cancer (that has come back), and to look for early vaginal cancer or VAIN. Vaginal cancer and VAIN are more common in women who have had cervical cancer or pre-cancer.

Many women with VAIN may also have a pre-cancer of the cervix (known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia or CIN). If abnormal cells are seen on a Pap test, the next step is a procedure called colposcopy, in which the cervix, the vagina, and at times the vulva are examined with a special instrument called a colposcope.

Can vaginal cancer be found early?

Some cases of vaginal cancer can be found early. They may produce symptoms that cause patients to seek medical attention, but many vaginal cancers do not cause symptoms until after they have reached an advanced stage. Pre-cancerous areas of vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) do not usually produce any symptoms. Still, well-woman exams and cervical cancer screening can sometimes find cases of VAIN and early invasive vaginal cancer.

How is vaginal cancer diagnosed?

If a woman has any of the signs or symptoms of vaginal cancer, she should see a doctor. If the Pap test detects abnormal cells, or if the pelvic exam results are not normal, more tests will be needed. This may mean referral to a gynecologist (specialist in problems of the female genital system).

Signs and symptoms of vaginal cancer : More than 8 out of 10 women with invasive vaginal cancer have one or more symptoms, such as:

Abnormal vaginal bleeding (often after intercourse)

Abnormal vaginal discharge

A mass that can be felt

Pain during intercourse

Symptoms of advanced vaginal cancer may be painful urination, constipation, and continuous pain in the pelvis.

Having these symptoms does not always mean that you have cancer. In fact, these symptoms are more likely to be caused by a benign condition, like an infection. The only way to know for sure what is causing these problems is to see your health care professional. If you have any of these symptoms, discuss them with your doctor right away. Remember, the sooner the problem is correctly diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment, and the more effective your treatment will be.

Medical history and physical exam : The first step is for the doctor to take a complete medical history to check for risk factors and symptoms. Then your doctor will physically examine you, including a pelvic exam and possibly a Pap test and a vaginal biopsy.

Colposcopy : If certain symptoms suggest cancer or if the Pap test shows abnormal cells, you will need to have a test called colposcopy. In this procedure you will lie on the exam table as you do for a pelvic exam. A speculum is placed in the vagina. The doctor will use the colposcope to examine the cervix and vagina. The colposcope stays outside of the body and has magnifying lenses (like binoculars). When the doctor looks through the colposcope, he or she can see the vaginal walls and the surface of the cervix closely and clearly. Sometimes a weak solution of acetic acid (similar to vinegar) or iodine is applied to make any abnormal areas easier to see. Using a colposcope to look at the vagina is called vaginoscopy.

Colposcopy itself is no more painful than a speculum exam and can be done safely even if you are pregnant. If an abnormal area is seen on the cervix or vagina, a biopsy will be done. The biopsy can be slightly painful and may some cause pelvic cramping.

Biopsy : Certain signs and symptoms may strongly suggest vaginal cancer, but many of them can be caused by conditions that aren't cancer. The only way to be certain that cancer is present is to do a biopsy. In this procedure, a small piece of tissue from the suspicious area is removed. A pathologist (a doctor specializing in diagnosing diseases by laboratory tests) will look at the tissue sample under a microscope to see if cancer or a pre-cancerous condition is present and, if so, what type it is.

Imaging tests 

Chest x-ray : If vaginal cancer is diagnosed, a plain x-ray of your chest may be done to see if your cancer has spread to your lungs. This is very unlikely unless your cancer is far advanced. This x-ray can be done in any outpatient setting.

Computed tomography (CT) : The computed tomography (CT) scan is an x-ray test that produces detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one picture, like a standard x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these pictures into an image of a slice of your body. A CT scan can provide information about the size, shape, and position of a tumor, and can be helpful to see if the cancer has spread to other organs. It can also help find enlarged lymph nodes that might have cancer cells.

A CT scanner has been described as a large donut, with a narrow table in the middle opening. You will need to lie still on the table while the scan is being done. CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, and you might feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken.

Before the test, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the intestine so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. You may also receive an IV line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures such as blood vessels in your body.

The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling). A few people are allergic to the dye and get hives, or rarely, have more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.

CT-guided needle biopsy:  CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected tumor. For this procedure, the patient remains on the CT scanning table, while a doctor moves a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the tumor. CT scans are repeated until the needle is within the mass. A fine-needle biopsy sample or a core needle biopsy sample is removed and looked at under a microscope. Although this is not used to biopsy vaginal tumors, it may be used to biopsy possible metastasis.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) : Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays to make images of the body. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed by the body and then released in a specific pattern formed by the type of tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern into a detailed image of parts of the body. Like a CT scanner, this produce cross-sectional slices of the body. An MRI can also produce slices that are parallel with the length of your body. As with a CT scan, a contrast material might be used, but it is not needed as often.

MRI scans are more uncomfortable than CT scans. They take longer -- often up to an hour. You have to be placed inside tube-like equipment. This is confining and can upset people with claustrophobia (a fear of close spaces). If you have trouble with close spaces, let your doctor know before the MRI scan. Sometimes medication can be given just before the scan to reduce anxiety. Another option is to use a special "open" MRI machine that is less confining and more comfortable for such people, the drawback being that the images from these machines are not as good.. The machine also makes a buzzing or clanging noise that some people find disturbing. Some places will provide headphones with music to block this sound.

MRI images are particularly useful in examining pelvic tumors. They may often detect enlarged lymph nodes in the groin. They are also helpful in detecting cancer that has spread to the brain or spinal cord. This rarely occurs in vaginal cancer.

Positron emission tomography : Positron emission tomography (PET) uses glucose (a form of sugar) that contains a low-level radioactive atom. Because cancers use glucose at a higher rate than normal tissues, the radioactivity tends to concentrate in the cancer. A special camera is used to detect the radioactivity. This test can be helpful for spotting collections of cancer cells, and can be useful to see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes. PET scans are also useful when your doctor thinks the cancer has spread, but doesn’t know where. PET scans can be used instead of several different x-rays because they scan your whole body. Special machines that combine a CT scan and a PET scan can even better pinpoint the tumor. PET scans are not often used in vaginal cancer, but they may be helpful in finding areas of cancer spread.

Endoscopic tests

These tests are not often used to evaluate women with vaginal cancer.


Proctosigmoidoscopy is a procedure that looks at the rectum and part of the colon. It is done to check for spread of vaginal cancer to the rectum or colon. In this procedure a slender, flexible, hollow, lighted tube is placed into the rectum. Any areas that look suspicious will be biopsied. This test may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it should not be painful. Proctosigmoidoscopy may be recommended for patients whose vaginal cancers are large and/or located in the part of the vagina next to the rectum and colon.


Cystoscopy is a procedure that looks at the inside of the bladder. It is done to check for spread of vaginal cancer to the bladder. This procedure can be done in the doctor's office or clinic. You may be given an intravenous medication to make you drowsy. A thin tube with a lens and light is inserted into the bladder through the opening called the urethra. If suspicious areas or growths are seen, a biopsy will be done. Cystoscopy may be recommended if a vaginal cancer is large and/or located in the front wall of the vagina, near the bladder.

How is vaginal cancer staged?

The FIGO/AJCC system for staging vaginal cancer

Staging is the process of finding out how far the cancer has spread. It is very important because your treatment options and the outlook for your recovery and survival (prognosis) depend on the stage of your cancer.

The stage of most vaginal cancers is most often described using the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) System of Staging combined with the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system. This system classifies the diseases in Stages 0 through IV depending on the extent of the tumor (T), whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes (N) and whether it has spread to distant sites (M for metastasis). The system described here is the most recent AJCC system, which went into effect January 2010. Any differences between the AJCC system and the FIGO system are explained in the text.

Vaginal cancer is staged clinically, which means that staging doesn’t take into account what is found during surgery.

These systems are not used to stage vaginal melanoma, which is staged like melanoma of the skin. Information about melanoma staging can be found in our document called Melanoma Skin Cancer.

Tumor extent (T)

Tis: Cancer cells are only in the most superficial layer of cells of the vagina without growth into the underlying tissues. This stage is also called carcinoma in situ (CIS) or vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia 3 (VAIN 3). It is not included in the FIGO system.

T1: The cancer is only in the vagina.

T2: The cancer has grown through the vaginal wall, but not as far as the pelvic wall.

T3: The cancer is growing into the pelvic wall.

T4: The cancer is growing into the bladder or rectum or is growing out of the pelvis.

Lymph node spread of cancer (N)

N0: The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes

N1: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the pelvis or groin (inguinal region)

Distant spread of cancer (M)

M0: The cancer has not spread to distant sites

M1: The cancer has spread to distant sites.

Stage grouping

Once the T, N, and M categories have been assigned, this information is combined to assign an overall stage in a process called stage grouping. The stages identify tumors that have a similar outlook and are treated in a similar way.

Stage 0 (Tis, N0, M0): In this stage, cancer cells are only in the top layer of cells lining the vagina (the epithelium) and have not grown into the deeper layers of the vagina. Cancers of this stage cannot spread to other parts of the body. Stage 0 vaginal cancer is also called carcinoma in situ (CIS) or vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia 3 (VAIN 3). This stage is not included in the FIGO system.

Stage I (T1, N0, M0): The cancer has grown through the top layer of cells but it has not grown out of the vagina and into nearby structures (T1). It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

Stage II (T2, N0, M0): The cancer has spread to the connective tissues next to the vagina but has not spread to the wall of the pelvis or to other organs nearby (T2). (The pelvis is the internal cavity that contains the internal female reproductive organs, rectum, bladder, and parts of the large intestine.) It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

Stage III: Either of the following:

T3, any N, M0: The cancer has spread to the wall of the pelvis (T3). It may (or may not) have spread to nearby lymph nodes (any N), but it has not spread to distant sites (M0).


T1 or T2, N1, M0: The cancer is in the vagina (T1) and it may have grown into the connective tissue nearby (T2). It has spread to lymph nodes nearby (N1), but has not spread to distant sites (M0).

Stage IVA (T4, Any N, M0): The cancer has grown out of the vagina to organs nearby (such as the bladder or rectum) (T4). It may or may not have spread to lymph nodes (any N). It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

Stage IVB (Any T, Any N, M1): Cancer has spread to distant organs such as the lungs (M1).

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