Vaginal Cancer | Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment | MedStar Health

What is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer develops when cancerous cells multiply uncontrollably in the vagina, the organ connecting the cervix (bottom of the uterus) to the vulva. Primary vaginal cancer, which starts growing in the vagina, is very rare. Most cancerous vaginal tumors occur when another cancer, such as cervical or endometrial cancer, spreads. This is called secondary vaginal cancer. Our vaginal cancer services are located throughout the Washington D.C., Baltimore, Maryland, and Virginia areas.


Symptoms and risk factors

What are common vaginal cancer symptoms?

Many women with this type of cancer don't experience any symptoms. For others, signs of vaginal cancer may include:

  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Painless vaginal bleeding and discharge
  • Pain in the pelvis or vagina

These symptoms could also be caused by another medical condition. If you notice anything unusual, it's important to visit your doctor for an evaluation.

What are the risk factors for vaginal cancer?

A risk factor can increase the likelihood of someone developing a certain disease. Factors that could elevate your risk of developing vaginal cancer may include:

  • Increased age: Women of all ages can develop this cancer, but it tends to primarily affect women over 70.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES): Women whose mothers took DES during the first three months of pregnancy are at increased risk for developing adenocarcinoma (a type of cancer that begins growing in glandular tissue).
  • HPV infection: Certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) are linked to this type of cancer and others.
  • Smoking: Cigarette smoking can nearly double a woman's odds of getting this cancer.
  • History of gynecologic cancer: Women who have had cervical cancer or a precancerous form (cervical dysplasia) may have an elevated risk of vaginal squamous cell cancer.
  • HIV: The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS can increase a woman's risk.

Most cancerous vaginal tumors occur when another cancer, such as cervical or endometrial cancer, spreads. This is called secondary vaginal cancer. Primary vaginal cancer, which starts growing in the vagina, is very rare.

Screening and prevention

Is vaginal cancer preventable?

Many women with this cancer have no known risk factors, so it's not always possible to prevent vaginal cancer. However, you may lower your risk of this disease by avoiding HPV infection and smoking, which are both linked to vaginal cancer and others.

Can screening detect vaginal cancer early?

There are no formal vaginal cancer screening guidelines. While regular HPV and Pap smear tests that screen for cervical cancer can detect abnormalities in the cervix, the goal of those tests is not to detect vaginal cancer or precancer (vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia, or VAIN). Still, it's important to stay on top of routine gynecologic care and to discuss any concerns or changes to your body with your doctor.


What tests diagnose vaginal cancer?

If you experience vaginal cancer signs, your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your health, lifestyle, and personal and family medical history. One or more tests or procedures may be used to confirm a vaginal cancer diagnosis, including:

  • Colposcopy: Similar to a pelvic exam, your doctor may examine the vagina in the office. During this test, they'll use a colposcope, which has magnifying lenses, to closely view the vaginal walls and cervix.
  • Biopsy: This procedure involves removing a small tissue sample for evaluation by a pathologist under a microscope.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging, such as CT, MRI, or PET scans, can show how far the cancer has spread.
  • Endoscopic tests: Although uncommon for diagnosing vaginal cancer, endoscopy procedures may be used to check for cancer spread to certain organs. For example, a proctosigmoidoscopy allows your doctor to use a thin, lighted tube to evaluate any potential spread to the rectum and colon, while a cystoscopy may be used to check for spread to the bladder.

Types of cancer

What is the most common type of vaginal cancer?

Overall, these cancers are extremely rare. However, most cases of vaginal cancer begin in the squamous cells of the vagina and are called squamous cell carcinoma.

Other, even rarer subtypes of this cancer may include:

It's more common for women to develop a gynecologic cancer that begins in another organ in the female reproductive system and spreads to the vagina. These cancers are named based on the organ where they start.

What are the stages of vaginal cancer?

Staging describes the extent of disease, or how far cancer has spread. Vaginal cancer stages include:

  • Stage O (carcinoma in situ or CIS): This precancerous stage develops when abnormal cells develop on the surface of the vaginal skin. Vaginal precancer is often called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia or VAIN.
  • Stage I: Cancer is contained to the vaginal walls
  • Stage II: Cancer may have spread outside of the vaginal walls but not to the walls of the pelvis
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread beyond the vagina to the walls of the pelvis and possibly nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage IV (metastatic vaginal cancer): Cancer has spread outside of the vagina to other organs


What does vaginal cancer treatment involve?

After a vaginal cancer diagnosis, a multidisciplinary team of doctors will meet to review the treatment options best suited for you. Treatment varies based on different factors, including:

  • The type and stage of your cancer
  • Your overall health
  • Your goals and preferences

Treatment is personalized to you and may involve one or more of the following approaches.


If you have early-stage vaginal cancer, your doctors may recommend surgery. The type of surgery that will be appropriate for you will depend on the location, size, and stage of your cancer. Our gynecologic oncologists are experts in all types of surgery for vaginal cancers, including:

  • Laser surgery: Destroys precancerous cells (VAIN) only, using a thin laser beam
  • Local or wide excision: Removal of the cancer and a portion of healthy tissue that surrounds it
  • Vaginectomy: Removal of all or part of the vagina
  • Trachelectomy: Removal of the cervix that preserves the vagina for women who wish to keep their ability to have children
  • Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus and cervix and some or none of the vagina
  • Lymph node dissection: Examination and removal of affected lymph nodes
  • Vaginal reconstruction: Sophisticated procedures that use skin or tissue grafts to rebuild the appearance and function of the vagina and surrounding areas

If you are a candidate for surgery, your doctor will thoroughly explain the pros and cons of your options and help you feel confident in knowing what to expect during and after treatment.


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that affects the whole body. This approach involves different medications and drug combinations to destroy cancer cells. Some may be given orally via a pill while others may be used topically as a lotion or ointment, or intravenously infused into the bloodstream. Our medical oncologists are experts in the latest chemotherapy options for treating vaginal cancer. If this treatment is appropriate for you, you can expect individualized recommendations on the timing, dosage, and type of chemotherapy that will be most effective for you.

Learn More About Chemotherapy


Immunotherapy stimulates the body's immune response to cancerous cells. There are several different types of this therapy available for treating other, more common cancers. We continue investigating its role in treating gynecologic cancers, such as vaginal cancer.

Learn More About Immunotherapy

Radiation therapy

Radiation is a common vaginal cancer treatment. It involves using high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be delivered from outside of the body using external beam radiation therapy or internally to the vagina using brachytherapy. Your care team will include radiation oncologists who use the most advanced radiation technologies available today to more precisely pinpoint radiation while limiting exposure to healthy tissue. They'll also closely monitor your body's response and help you manage any uncomfortable symptoms throughout treatment, making adjustments as necessary.

Learn More About Radiation Therapy

Our locations

Distance from Change locationEnter your location

MedStar Georgetown Cancer Institute at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center

9103 Franklin Square Dr.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute
Suite 220
Baltimore, MD 21237

MedStar Franklin Square Cancer Center at Loch Raven Campus

5601 Loch Raven Blvd.
Russell Morgan Building
First Floor
Baltimore, MD 21239

MedStar Georgetown Cancer Institute at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital

25500 Point Lookout Rd.
First Fl.
Leonardtown, MD 20650

Why choose us

When you're diagnosed with vaginal cancer, it's important to seek treatment from experts who have experience in managing your type of cancer. Patients choose MedStar Health for vaginal cancer care because:

Treatment recommendations involve input from a team of specialists with varied expertise. We review gynecologic cancer cases regularly in multidisciplinary tumor boards that allow us to collectively determine the right approach for each patient. Your care is based on evidence-based treatments evaluated by a team of experts, rather than a single physician. This ensures you benefit from the expertise of doctors specializing in:

  • Gynecologic oncology
  • Radiation oncology
  • Medical oncology
  • Pathology
  • Radiology
  • Plastic and reconstructive surgery
  • Pelvic medicine
  • Reconstructive surgery
  • Rehabilitation
  • and more

We're experienced in the latest cancer treatments, including sophisticated surgeries and therapies, some of which are only available in clinical trials. Our gynecologic oncologists have extensive expertise in a wide range of vaginal cancer surgeries. In addition, they work closely with radiation oncologists and medical oncologists, who can recommend the most advanced therapies available today, including those in clinical trials that may not be widely available elsewhere. Through the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, we continue evaluating new approaches for detecting and treating gynecologic cancers.

We make it convenient and easy to get exceptional, comprehensive cancer care. Our cancer doctors see patients at several locations throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., ensuring easy access to some of the most advanced cancer treatments close to home. Our physicians, advanced clinicians, and support staff work closely across the MedStar Health network to deliver personalized care for any physical or emotional need that may arise during and after treatment. This includes seamless access to specialists in pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, gastroenterology, pelvic floor rehabilitation, nutrition, psychology, and more so you get the care you need to feel your best.

Awards and recognition

Recipient of an Accreditation with Commendation, the highest level of approval, from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer (CoC)

Numerous surgeons, medical oncologists, and surgical oncologists recognized as "Top Doctors" by both Baltimore Magazine and the Washingtonian

Magnet® designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Support services

Whether you are undergoing treatment or living as a vaginal cancer survivor, we're here to help you navigate any physical or emotional challenges that arise. Patients have access to the entire spectrum of specialty care available throughout the MedStar Health system, from cancer psychology services to coordinated care with experts in female pelvic medicine, reconstructive surgery, and more.

Learn More About Cancer Support Services

Genetic counseling

Our board-certified genetic counselors are available to meet with families who have a strong family history of cancer or are concerned about their hereditary cancer risk. Patients and families benefit from understanding the pros and cons of genetic testing, as well as personalized recommendations for risk management.

Learn More About Genetic Counseling

Personalized rehabilitation

The goal of rehabilitation is to help you regain strength and maximize your quality of life after you've finished vaginal cancer treatment. We offer a full range of physical and occupational therapy services, including access to experts in lymphedema management and pelvic floor therapy, to help you manage any side effects related to your cancer.

Learn More About Cancer Rehabilitation


Regular follow-up care is important for managing any potential recurrences, addressing treatment side effects, and optimizing your overall health after cancer. Talk to your doctor about a personalized survivorship plan to help you stay on top of follow-up exams, treatment symptoms, and lifestyle changes to improve your general well-being.

Learn More About the Cancer Survivorship Program