It occurred to us that, with all the talk of cervical cancer and breast cancer, very few people actually touch on vaginal cancer. Or vulvar cancer even. And these cancers definitely exist – so you should know about them.
Yikes – what are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?
Sometimes early vaginal cancer has zero signs and symptoms.
But, as it progresses, things to watch out for include: unusual vaginal bleeding, for example, after sex or after menopause; a watery discharge; a lump or mass in your vagina; painful urination; frequent urination; constipation; and pelvic pain.
READ MORE: How Much Vaginal Discharge Is Normal?
Do you get different types?
Yes, vaginal squamous cell carcinoma begins in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vag – this is the most common type.
Vaginal adenocarcinoma starts in the glandular cells on the surface of your vagina.
Vaginal melanoma develops in the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) and vaginal sarcoma starts in the connective tissue cells or muscles cells in the walls of your vagina.
Am I at risk?
Vaginal cancer is pretty rare, but if you said ta-ta to your youth a while back (most people diagnosed with vaginal cancer are over 60), you need to be more alert to it.
However… if you’re younger, you still need to pay attention to the following:
The HPV connection: vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN), which ups your risk of vaginal cancer, is caused by the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
Now HPV is actually far more common than you may realise, affecting 36.7 percent of HIV-negative women in SA and a whopping 74 percent of HIV-positive gals. HPV vaccines are available, so it’s worth looking into.
Then there’s exposure to the miscarriage prevention drug diethylstilbestrol (DES). If your mom took it while she was pregnant in the Fifties, you may have an increased risk of a certain type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. Ask her!
Can I reduce my risk?
You can. Make sure you don’t skip your pelvic exams and Pap smears (early detection really is key), chat to your gynae or regular doc about getting vaccinated for HPV (this will reduce your risk not only of vaginal cancer, but also other HPV-related cancers).
And then, guys, as always: don’t smoke. Smoking ups your risk for all sorts of cancers – vaginal included.
Other risk factors linked to an increased risk of vaginal cancer include: multiple sexual partners, starting to have sex when you were very young and HIV infection.
So what's vulvar cancer then?
Vulvar cancer occurs on the outer surface area of your genitals – that area of skin surrounding the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia.
It’s most commonly discovered as an itchy lump or sore on the vulva. So pay closer attention to what you think might just be a random ingrown hair…
What do I need to look out for?
Itching that doesn’t go away; pain and tenderness; bleeding that isn’t from menstruation; skin changes, such as color changes or thickening; and a lump, wartlike bumps or an ulcer.
Your risk factors are similar to vaginal cancer (being a little older, having HPV, smoking) but include the following over and above: a weakened immune system, whether that’s caused by HIV or being on meds to suppress your immune system – say, after an organ transplant.
Then having a skin condition that affects the vulva, like lichen sclerosus, also ups your odds.
Prevention, again, is similar to vaginal cancer: Look into getting the HPV vaccine, always wear a condom, limit your number of sexual partners, and make sure you visit your gynae regularly for pelvic exams.
This article was originally published on Women's Health South Africa.