Health & Wellbeing

#TabooTuesday: Everything You NTK About Vagina Cancer

Women’s health is something we care about deeply at Pink Parcel. From PMS to sore nipples to cancer, there’s nothing we won’t talk about, which is why we’re teaming up with The Eve Appeal this September in support of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month. Each week, we’ll be helping the UK’s only gynaecological cancer charity to spread the key signs and symptoms of the five gynae cancers and talk as much as we can about how you can safeguard yourself against them – read again the NTKs of ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer, learn all about cancer of the vulva and today, get the lowdown on vagina cancer.

What is vagina cancer?

Vaginal cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the vagina. If cancer of the cervix, womb or ovaries spreads to the vagina it is then called secondary vagina cancer.

What are the symptoms?

With very early vaginal cancer or the pre-cancerous changes that occur before cancer, symptoms are very rare – as many as 20% of women diagnosed with vaginal cancer have no symptoms at all. It is important however to see your GP if you notice any of the following:

  • Bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause
  • Vaginal discharge that smells or may be blood stained
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • A lump or growth in the vagina
  • A vaginal itch that won’t go away

It’s likely that many of these symptoms will be caused by something that’s much less serious than cancer, such as an infection.

How does it develop?

Cancer of the vagina is a skin (or squamous) cancer. The Eve Appeal says that vagina cancer begins when the growth pattern and structure of a cell changes, increasing in size until it develops into a tumour.

Although the exact cause of vagina cancer is unknown, it has been identified that you’re more likely to develop cancer of the vagina if abnormal cells have been found in either your cervix (called known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia – CIN), or in your vagina (called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia – VAIN). Both CIN and VAIN are thought to be closely linked to having a persistent HPV infection.

“HPV” – the human papilloma virus – is a group of viruses, rather than a single virus, of which there are more than 100 different types. HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin sexual contact. Most women have HPV at some stage during their life, and it usually disappears all by itself without the need for any treatment. However, when it doesn’t there is a risk that abnormal cells can develop.

Because HPV is present in more than two-thirds of women with vaginal cancer, this suggests that it may increase your risk of developing the condition.

How common is it?

Just over 250 women in the UK are diagnosed with vagina cancer each year, so it’s very rare. It mostly affects women over 60 years of age and is not common in women under 40.

How is it diagnosed and treatment?

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, your GP may carry out a physical examination, run blood tests, or refer you to a gynaecologist for further tests.

A gynaecologist may then look for any unusual lumps or swellings with external or internal vaginal examinations, or you may have a colposcopy – where your vagina is examined closely with a special instrument.

If abnormal tissue is seen in your vagina, a small sample will be removed and checked under a microscope for cancerous cells.

If the results of the biopsy suggest you have cancer, you may have further tests that include a detailed internal vaginal an X-ray, or a CT and MRI scans to see if the cancer has spread.

Vaginal cancer is usually treated with surgery – where part, or all, of the vagina will be removed. However depending on the particular pattern of the cancer, it can also respond to chemotherapy and/or internal or external radiotherapy (depending on whether the cancer is in the vagina’s lining or deeper in the tissues of the vagina).

Why is talking about cancer so important?

By talking about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancer, we can spread the word on the importance of gynae health. A recent study by The Eve Appeal, revealed that as many as 19% of women wouldn’t see the doctor if they suffered from abnormal bleeding, with 9% of women admitting they’re unlikely to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a gynae health issue. Raise awareness during #gynaemonth by starting a conversation with the women in your life.

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