Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest types of cancer affecting the female reproductive system. Vaginal cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the tissues of the vagina grow in an uncontrolled way. Vaginal cancer is rare with less than 20 women diagnosed each year in Australia. Due to its rareness, knowledge about risk factors is sparse.

Known risk factors

Vaginal cancer is not infectious. The known risk factors for vaginal cancer are:

  • A precancerous condition called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) that often has no symptoms.
  • Presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to the development of VAIN.
  • Tobacco smoking, which doubles your risk of vaginal cancer.
  • Radiotherapy to the pelvis increases your risk of vaginal cancer, however this is very rare.
  • If you have had cervical cancer you are at increased risk of vaginal cancer.
  • If your mother was prescribed the synthetic hormone diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy (before 1971), you have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.


Vaginal cancer often does not cause early symptoms and may be found during a routine cervical screening test. When symptoms do occur, they may be caused by vaginal cancer or by other conditions. You should see a doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • blood-stained vaginal discharge (not menstrual bleeding)
  • bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • pain in the pelvic area
  • a lump in the vagina.
  • problems with passing urine, such as blood in the urine, the need to pass urine frequently and the need to pass urine at night, can also occur.
  • pain in the rectum (back passage) may sometimes occur.

Diagnosis & treatment

While most cancer is of “skin” type (squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma), some cancers are very aggressive arising from stromal tissue (sarcomas) or from glandular tissue (adenocarcinomas). Treatment involves surgical excision for very early cancers and radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination of both for more advanced cancers.

For detailed information on diagnosis and treatment visit the Cancer Australia website.

Source: Cancer Australia 2020, Cancer Council Australia 2020