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What is vaginal cancer?

Primary vaginal cancer is any cancer that starts in the vagina. There are several types named after the cells they start in.

Types of primary vaginal cancers

squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)starts in the thin, flat (squamous) cells lining the vagina; makes up about 85% of vaginal cancers
adenocarcinomadevelops from the mucus-producing (glandular) cells of the vagina; includes clear cell carcinoma; makes up 5–10% of vaginal cancers
vaginal (mucosal) melanomastarts in the cells that give the skin its colour (melanocytes), which are also found in the lining of the vagina; a rare form of vaginal cancer
sarcomadevelops from muscle, fat and other tissue deep in the wall of the vagina; a rare form of vaginal cancer

Some cancers of the vagina have spread from a cancer elsewhere in the body. These are called secondary vaginal cancers. 

Secondary cancer in the vagina is more common than primary vaginal cancer. This means the cancer has spread from another part of the body, such as the cervix, uterus, vulva, bladder, bowel or other nearby organs. Secondary vaginal cancer is managed differently from primary vaginal cancer. For more information, see the Cancer Council booklet about the original cancer and speak to your treatment team.

How common is vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest types of cancer affecting the female reproductive system (gynaecological cancer). Each year in Australia, about 100 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and it is more common in women over 60. However, vaginal cancer, particularly adenocarcinoma, can sometimes occur in younger women.

Anyone with a vagina can get vaginal cancer – women, transgender men and intersex people. For information specific to your situation, speak to your doctor.

Featured resource

Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed October 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Alison Brand, Director, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jane Conroy-Wright, Consumer; Rebecca James, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Suparna Karpe, Clinical Psychologist, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Pearly Khaw, Consultant Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Sally McCoull, Consumer; A/Prof Orla McNally, Gynaecological Oncologist and Director, Oncology/Dysplasia, The Royal Women’s Hospital, and Director, Gynaecology Tumour Stream, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Haley McNamara, Social Worker and Project Manager, Care at End of Life Project, Queensland Health, QLD; Tamara Wraith, Senior Clinician – Physiotherapy, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC.