Vaginal Cancer

What Is Vaginal Cancer?

Cancer of the vagina, a rare kind of cancer in women, is a disease in which malignant cells are found in the tissues of the vagina. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about 3,170 cases of vaginal cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2014.

vaginal cancer stages anatomical illustration

Vaginal Cancer Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms of vaginal cancer. However, you may experience symptoms differently from other women. Symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
  • Difficult or painful urination
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Pain in the pelvic area
  • Constipation
  • A mass that can be felt

Vaginal Cancer2

Even if you have had a hysterectomy, you still have a chance of developing vaginal cancer. The symptoms of vaginal cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems. As with any suspected medical condition, it is important that you consult your doctor for assessment and diagnosis.

Vaginal Cancer Types

There are several types of cancer of the vagina. The two most common are:

  • Squamous cell cancer (squamous carcinoma): Squamous carcinoma is most often found in women between the ages of 60 and 80, and accounts for about 70% of all vaginal cancers.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma is more often found in women older than 50 and accounts for about 15% of all vaginal cancers.

A rare form of cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma results from the use of the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) given to pregnant women between 1945 and 1970 to keep them from miscarrying.

Other very rare types of vaginal cancer include:

  • Malignant melanoma
  • Leiomyosarcoma
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma

Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis

There are several tests your doctor may use to diagnose vaginal cancer, including:

Pelvic exam

Pelvic Exam

A pelvic exam is an examination of the vagina, and other organs in the pelvis, checking for tumors, lumps, or masses.  A pelvic exam may include colposcopy.

Colposcopy

Colposcopy

A colposcopy is a procedure that uses an instrument with magnifying lenses, called a colposcope, to examine the cervix for abnormalities. If abnormal tissue is found, a biopsy is usually performed (colposcopic biopsy).

Pap smear

Pap Smear

A pap smear is a test that involves microscopic examination of cells collected from the cervix, used to detect changes that may be cancer or may lead to cancer, and to show noncancerous conditions, such as infection or inflammation.

CT scan

Computed Tomography Scan (CT Scan)

MRI

What Is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)?

A magnetic resonance (REZ-oh-nans) imaging scan is usually called an MRI. An MRI does not use radiation (X-rays) and is a noninvasive medical test or examination. The MRI machine uses a large magnet and a computer to take pictures of the inside of your body. Each picture or “slice” shows only a few layers of body tissue at a time. The pictures can then be examined on a computer monitor.

Pictures taken this way may help caregivers find and see problems in your body more easily. The scan usually takes between 15 to 90 minutes. Including the scan, the total examination time usually takes between 1.5 to 3 hours.

A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein to help the physicians see the image more clearly. The gadolinium collects around cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. Sometimes a procedure called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is done during the MRI scan. An MRS is used to diagnose tumors based on their chemical make-up.

How does MRI work?

The MRI machine is a large, cylindrical (tube-shaped) machine that creates a strong magnetic field around the patient. This magnetic field, along with a radiofrequency, alters the hydrogen atoms’ natural alignment in the body.

A magnetic field is created and pulses of radio waves are sent from a scanner. The radio waves knock the nuclei of the atoms in the body out of their normal position; as the nuclei realign back into proper position, they send out radio signals.

These signals are received by a computer that analyzes and converts them into an image of the part of the body being examined. This image appears on a viewing monitor. Some MRI machines look like narrow tunnels, while others are more open.

MRI may be used instead of a CT scan in situations where organs or soft tissue are being studied, because with MRI scanning bones do not obscure the images of organs and soft tissues, as does CT scanning.

Other related procedures that are used to assess the heart may include:

  • Resting or exercise electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Signal-averaged electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Holter monitor
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Chest X-ray
  • Computed tomography (CT scan) of the chest
  • Electrophysiological studies
  • Myocardial perfusion scans
  • Radionuclide angiography
  • Ultrafast CT scans

PET scan

What Is Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan?

Positron emission tomography, also called PET imaging or a PET scan, is a type of nuclear medicine imaging. A PET scan measures important body functions, such as blood flow, oxygen use, and sugar (glucose) metabolism, to help doctors evaluate how well organs and tissues are functioning.

PET is a powerful diagnostic test that is having a major impact on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. A PET scan (positron emission tomography scan) monitors the biochemical functioning of cells by detecting how they process certain compounds, such as glucose (sugar). PET can detect extremely small cancerous tumors, subtle changes of the brain and heart, and give doctors important early information about heart disease and many neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s.

Most common medical tests, like CT and MRI scans, only show details about the structure of your body. PET scans give doctors images of function throughout the entire body, uncovering abnormalities that might otherwise go undetected. This allows doctors to treat these diseases earlier and more accurately. A PET scan puts time on your side. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance for treatment.

For example, a PET scan is the most accurate, non-invasive way to tell whether or not a tumor is benign or malignant, sparing patients expensive, often painful diagnostic surgeries and suggesting treatment options earlier in the course of the disease. Although cancer spreads silently in the body, PET can inspect all organs of the body for cancer in a single examination.

Today, most PET scans are performed on instruments that are combined PET and CT scanners. The combined PET/CT scans provide images that pinpoint the location of abnormal metabolic activity within the body. The combined scans have been shown to provide more accurate diagnoses than the two scans performed separately.

About nuclear medicine

Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose or treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, heart disease, and certain other abnormalities within the body. Depending on the type of nuclear medicine exam you are undergoing, the radiotracer is either injected into a vein, swallowed or inhaled as a gas and eventually accumulates in the organ or area of your body being examined, where it gives off energy in the form of gamma rays. This energy is detected by a device called a gamma camera, a PET scanner and/or probe.

Biopsy

What Is a Biopsy?

A biopsy is a procedure in which tissue samples are removed from the body by a needle or during surgery, for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.

By examining and performing tests on the biopsy sample, pathologists and other experts can determine what kind of cancer is present, whether it is likely to be fast or slow growing, and what genetic abnormalities it may have. This information is important in deciding the best type of treatment. Open surgery is sometimes performed to obtain a biopsy, but in most cases, tissue samples can be obtained without open surgery using interventional radiology techniques.

Some biopsies can be performed in a doctor’s office, while others need to be done in a hospital setting. Most biopsies require use of an anesthetic to numb the area and may require sedation.

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