Vaginal cancer is rare in relation to other gynecologic cancers, comprising about one percent of the female reproductive system cancers. In the U.S., about 3,200 new vaginal cancer cases are diagnosed each year, and about 880 women die each year from this disease.
A diagnosis of vaginal cancer can be delayed due to a poorly performed biopsy or a pathologist misinterpreting biopsy results. Sometimes, a lab will mishandle or mislabel biopsy results. The consequences can be tragic.
What is Vaginal Cancer?
The vagina (sometimes referred to as the birth canal) is a 3- to 4-inch tube from the cervix (lower part of the uterus) to the vulva (external genitals). Squamous cells (flat cells) line the vagina. This layer of cells is also called epithelium because epithelial cells form it.
The vaginal wall contains connective tissue, muscle tissue, lymph vessels, and nerves. Glands near the opening of the vagina secrete mucus to keep the vaginal lining moist.
The most common form of vaginal cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (about 70 percent of cases). This cancer starts in the squamous cells that comprise the epithelial lining of the vagina, and are usually found in the upper area of the vagina near the cervix.
Squamous cell cancers can develop slowly over many years. The second most common type of vaginal cancer is adenocarcinoma (about 15 percent of cases), which starts in the gland cells. This vaginal cancer usually develops in women over 50.
Melanoma develops in pigment-producing cells that skin its color. This type of cancer usually develops on sun-exposed areas of the skin, but can also form in the vagina and internal organs. Melanoma (about nine percent of vaginal cancers in the U.S.) typically affects the lower or outer portion of the vagina.
The fourth type of cancer originating in the vagina is a sarcoma (about four percent of cases), which begins deep in the wall of the vagina, not on its surface. Several types of sarcoma can develop in the vaginal wall.
How is Vaginal Cancer Diagnosed?
Age is a primary risk factor in getting vaginal cancer. Squamous cell cancer, for example, occurs primarily in older women, with only about 15 percent of diagnoses found in women younger than 40. Nearly half of the cases in the U.S. involve women 70 or older.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) can be transmitted from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact, including sex. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 90 percent of vaginal cancers are related to HPV infections.
Women whose mothers (when pregnant with them) were given the drug DES between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriages have a risk of developing clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina.
Smoking is also a known risk factor for vaginal cancer.
Early stages of vaginal cancer often exhibit no symptoms. More invasive vaginal cancer may cause:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (including after intercourse)
- Abnormal vaginal discharge
- A mass in the vagina that can be detected by touch
- Pain during intercourse
- Painful urination
- Continuous pelvic pain.
If exhibiting these symptoms (which may not be necessarily caused by vaginal cancer), a woman should seek medical attention. A treating physician should conduct a complete physical exam, including a pelvic exam, and possibly a Pap test (which can show abnormal cells).
A colposcopy allows for a detailed examination of the vagina and cervix. A biopsy (removal of small tissue sample for microscopic examination) can be conducted if the colposcopy reveals an abnormal area of the vagina.
Misdiagnosis of Vaginal Cancer or a Delayed Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis
Because symptoms associated with vaginal cancer are often caused by other conditions, doctors can misinterpret the symptoms or fail to refer a patient to a specialist or order follow up tests for a more definitive diagnosis. Doctors will sometimes wait too long to order follow up tests. They might fail to adequately perform follow up tests such as colposcopy.
Consequences of Delayed or Misdiagnosis of Vaginal Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rates for the various stages of vaginal cancer (all types) are:
- Stage I – Cancer has grown through the top layer of cells but not out of the vagina (84 percent)
- Stage II – Cancer has spread to the connective tissues next to the vagina but not to the pelvic wall or other organs (75 percent)
- Stage III – Cancer has spread to the wall of the pelvis, or nearby lymph nodes (57 percent)
- Stage IV – Cancer has grown out of the vagina to nearby organs nearby, such as the bladder or rectum, or has spread to distant organs in the body (57 percent)
As with any type of cancer, early detection and treatments increase the chance of survival and recovery. Surgery and radiation is the usual course of treatments for invasive vaginal cancer, with the goal of removing and curing the cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation is often used if the disease is more advanced.
Our Delayed Vaginal Cancer Diagnosis Attorneys Can Help You
The delayed cancer diagnosis lawyers of Powers & Santola, LLP, are committed to providing outstanding legal representation to individuals who have been harmed by a needlessly delayed diagnosis of vaginal cancer. We believe that legal excellence entails not only knowledge and talent but also having the resources and dedication to fundamentally changing the lives of our clients and their families for the better.
We serve clients in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and throughout New York State. To learn how our delayed cancer diagnosis attorneys can assist in your case, call us today or simply submit our online form.