Your treatment options for vaginal cancer depend on several factors, including the type of vaginal cancer you have and its stage. You and your doctor work together to determine what treatments are best for you based on your goals of treatment and the side effects you're willing to endure. Treatment for vaginal cancer typically includes surgery and radiation.
Types of surgery that may be used in women with vaginal cancer include:
- Removal of small tumors or lesions. Cancer limited to the surface of your vagina may be cut away, along with a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed.
- Removal of the vagina (vaginectomy). Removing part of your vagina (partial vaginectomy) or your entire vagina (radical vaginectomy) may be necessary to remove all of the cancer. Depending on the extent of your cancer, your surgeon may recommend surgery to remove your uterus and ovaries (hysterectomy) and nearby lymph nodes (lymphadenectomy) at the same time as your vaginectomy.
- Removal of the majority of the pelvic organs (pelvic exenteration). This extensive surgery may be an option if cancer has spread throughout your pelvic area or if your vaginal cancer has recurred. During pelvic exenteration, the surgeon may remove many of the organs in your pelvic area, including your bladder, ovaries, uterus, vagina, rectum and the lower portion of your colon. Openings are created in your abdomen to allow urine (urostomy) and waste (colostomy) to exit your body and collect in ostomy bags.
If your vagina is completely removed, you may choose to undergo surgery to construct a new vagina. Surgeons use pieces of skin, sections of intestine or flaps of muscle from other areas of your body to form a new vagina. With some adjustments, a reconstructed vagina allows you to have vaginal intercourse. However, a reconstructed vagina isn't the same as your own vagina. For instance, a reconstructed vagina lacks natural lubrication and creates a different sensation when touched due to changes in surrounding nerves.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation can be delivered two ways:
- External radiation. External beam radiation is directed at your entire abdomen or just your pelvis, depending on the extent of your cancer. During external beam radiation, you're positioned on a table and a large radiation machine is maneuvered around you in order to target the treatment area. Most women with vaginal cancer receive external beam radiation.
- Internal radiation. During internal radiation (brachytherapy), radioactive devices — seeds, wires, cylinders or other materials — are placed in your vagina or the surrounding tissue. After a set amount of time, the devices may be removed. Women with very early-stage vaginal cancer may receive internal radiation only. Other women may receive internal radiation after undergoing external radiation.
Radiation therapy kills quickly growing cancer cells, but it may also damage nearby healthy cells, causing side effects. Side effects of radiation depend on the radiation's intensity and where it's aimed.
If surgery and radiation can't control your cancer, you may be offered other treatments, including:
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- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. It isn't clear whether chemotherapy is useful in women with vaginal cancer. For this reason, chemotherapy generally isn't used on its own to treat vaginal cancer. Chemotherapy may be used during radiation therapy to enhance the effectiveness of radiation.
- Clinical trials. Clinical trials are experiments to test new treatment methods. While a clinical trial gives you a chance to try the latest treatment advances, a cure isn't guaranteed. Discuss available clinical trials with your doctor to better understand your options, or contact the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society to find out what clinical trials might be available to you.
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- Vaginal cancer treatment (PDQ). National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/vaginal/patient. Accessed Jan. 28, 2013.
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- Total pelvic exenteration. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/sexualsideeffectsinwomen/sexualityforthewoman/sexuality-for-women-with-cancer-tot-pelvic-exenterat. Accessed Jan. 28, 2013.
- Taking time: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/takingtime. Accessed Jan. 29, 2013.