The volunteers of Woman to Woman share their own experiences and offer support and guidance to other women going through cancer therapy.
Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers
Cancers of the vagina and the vulva (the area of skin that surrounds the opening for urination, including the clitoris and labia) are the least common of gynecologic cancers, but they do occur. Vaginal cancer begins in the vagina, which is the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body. Vulvar cancer begins in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs. When vaginal and vulvar cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
Together, vaginal and vulvar cancers account for 6–7 percent of all gynecologic cancers diagnosed in the U.S. Most cases are diagnosed in women over 50.
There is no way to know for sure if you will get vaginal or vulvar cancer. Some women get these cancers without being at high risk. However, several factors may increase the chance that you will get vaginal or vulvar cancer, including if you:
- Have the human papillomavirus (HPV) , a common virus with more than 100 different kinds or types. More than 30 of the types can be passed from one person to another during sex. HPV is more prevalent now than ever before and more testing is available for the viruses that cause HPV. Most HPV infections will go away on their own, but for some, the infection causes cell changes and increases the risk of cancer in the future. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact, vaginal and anal intercourse, as well as oral sex, which is the cause of most cases in young women. HPV weakens the immune system and may make you more susceptible to infections.
- Have had cervical cancer.
- Have a condition that weakens your immune system (such as HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS), making it hard for your body to fight off health problems.
Almost all cervical cancers and some vaginal and vulvar cancers are caused by HPV.
Gardasil and Cervaris vaccinations can prevent certain types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is given in a series of three shots. The vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12 year old girls. It is also recommended for girls and women aged 13 through 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. (Note: The vaccine can be given to girls beginning at age 9.)
Early on, most vaginal cancers do not cause signs and symptoms. But if there are symptoms, they may include:
- Vaginal discharge or bleeding that is not normal for you.
- A change in bathroom habits, such as having blood in the stool or urine; going to the bathroom more often than usual; or feeling constipated.
- Pain in your pelvis, the area below your stomach and in between your hip bones, especially when you pass urine or have sex.
- Itching, burning, or bleeding on the vulva that does not go away
- Changes in the color of the skin of the vulva, so that it looks redder or whiter than is normal for you or has a rash or warts.
- Sores, lumps, or ulcers on the vulva that do not go away.
It is important for you to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you have any of these symptoms, it does not mean you have vaginal or vulva cancer. Symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor.
There is no simple and reliable way to test for vaginal or vulvar cancers in women who do not have any signs or symptoms. The Pap test does not screen for vaginal or vulvar cancers – it only screens for uterine cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with vaginal or vulvar cancers, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist—a doctor who has been trained to treat cancers of the female reproductive system.
To make an appointment with a Mount Sinai gynecologic oncologist, please contact us at 212-427-9898.
To make an appointment with a Mount Sinai gynecologic oncologist
New patients, please download these forms, fill them out and bring them to your first appointment.
OBGYN Form Packet [PDF]