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Vaginal Cancer Services at UPMC in Central Pa.

Our physicians and surgeons are expert at treating vaginal cancer using minimally invasive techniques that can help preserve your quality of life. Our experts have vast experience treating this disease.

What is Vaginal Cancer?

Vaginal cancer starts in the cells of your vagina, also known as the birth canal. The vagina is a hollow, tube-like passageway between the bottom part of your uterus and the outside of your body. Most vaginal cancers begin in the lining of your vagina, the epithelium. These are called vaginal squamous cell carcinomas. This type of vaginal cancer develops over many years. It develops from precancerous changes, called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN).

Vaginal Cancer Symptoms

There are often no symptoms in the early stages of vaginal cancer, before cancer has spread. Fortunately, most cases of this rare cancer are diagnosed in the early stages. Many women with invasive vaginal cancer do, however, develop symptoms such as:

  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • A mass in your vagina that you can feel
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain when urinating
  • Constipation
  • Constant pain in the pelvis
  • An abnormal Pap smear

These are signs of vaginal cancer. Less serious, noncancerous conditions may also cause these symptoms. If you have symptoms such as these that won't go away, and cannot be explained by other reasons, report them to your doctor.

Vaginal Cancer Treatment

Your treatment for vaginal cancer depends on the results of your lab tests, how close the cancer is to other important organs, such as your bladder or rectum, and the extent of the disease, called the stage. Your doctor may also consider your age and general health when making recommendations about treatment. If childbearing is an issue for you, your cancer care team may consider this, too.

Surgery for Vaginal Cancer

The surgeons at the Women's Cancer Center in Central Pa. specialize in minimally invasive procedures to treat vaginal cancer. The goals of surgery are to remove the cancer from your vagina and to perform a biopsy on the lymph nodes in your groin and possibly the pelvis. This is where vaginal cancer generally spreads. The results of your biopsy will help your doctor see if the cancer is spreading. The extent of and type of the surgery depends on the size and stage of the cancer.

  • Local excision. In this procedure, the surgeon removes the cancer along with a surrounding rim of normal tissue. This is sometimes called a wide excision. For VAIN, a local excision may be all that is needed. For small stage I cancers, treatment may include a radical wide local excision along with a procedure to evaluate the lymph nodes.
  • Vaginectomy. Vaginectomy is surgery to remove the vagina. If only part of the vagina is removed, it is called a partial vaginectomy. If the entire vagina is removed, it is called a total vaginectomy. A radical vaginectomy is when the vagina is removed along with the supporting tissues around it.
  • Trachelectomy. Vaginal cancer is most often found in the upper part of the vagina (near the cervix), so removing the cancer sometimes means also removing the cervix. If only the cervix is removed (leaving the rest of uterus behind), the operation is called a trachelectomy. This operation is rarely used to treat vaginal cancer.

Chemotherapy for Vaginal Cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Doctors do not use chemotherapy as often for vaginal cancer as they do for other types of cancer. The goal of chemotherapy is to shrink the cancer, while also reducing your chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of your body. You may have chemotherapy alone, or along with radiation, to increase the effectiveness of the radiation therapy.

Radiation Therapy for Vaginal Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as gamma rays or x-rays) and particles (such as electrons, protons, or neutrons) to kill cancer cells. In treating vaginal cancers, radiation is delivered from outside the body in a procedure that is much like having a diagnostic x-ray. This is called external beam radiation therapy. It is sometimes used along with chemotherapy to treat more advanced cancers to shrink them so they can be removed with surgery. Radiation alone may be used to treat lymph nodes in the groin and pelvis.

Another way to deliver radiation is to place radioactive material inside the vagina. One way to do this is called intracavitary brachytherapy. The 2 main types of intracavitary brachytherapy are low-dose rate (LDR) and high-dose rate (HDR). With these intracavitary methods, radiation mainly affects the tissue in contact with the cylinder. This often means less bladder and bowel side effects than what is seen with external beam radiation therapy.

Contact Us

Need more information? Our friendly staff can assist you. To get in touch, request information or call 717-221-5940 for more information or to make an appointment.

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