Cancer screening exams can help find vaginal cancer at its earliest stage when the chances for successful treatment, optimal outcomes and fewer side effects are greatest. These tests are usually done when a patient is healthy and has no specific symptoms.

Not only are expert cancer researchers at the OSUCCC – James continually working to detect and diagnose vaginal cancer early, but they are also developing additional tests to detect and diagnose cancer even earlier, leading to improved outcomes, faster responses and fewer side effects.

Unlike with some cancers, there are currently no recommended screening exams for vaginal cancer. A doctor may notice precancerous changes to the cells in the vagina during an examination and Pap test to screen for cervical cancer.

Women who have been exposed to Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, premature labor and related complications, are at increased risk for vaginal cancer. Women who have taken DES should be particularly aware of vaginal cancer symptoms and have regular cervical cancer screening.

For women aged 30 or older, or for women with atypical Pap test results, a doctor may recommend a test for human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that is spread by sexual contact. HPV can create changes in the cells in the vagina that, if not treated, can lead to cancer in some cases.

Vaginal Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases your risk of getting vaginal cancer. Factors for vaginal cancer include the following:

  • Being aged 60 or older
  • Being exposed to Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, premature labor and related complications
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Having a history of abnormal cells in the cervix or cervical cancer
  • Having a history of abnormal cells in the uterus or cancer of the uterus
  • Having had a hysterectomy for health problems that affect the uterus

(Source: National Cancer Institute)

The presence of risk factors does not necessarily mean you have vaginal cancer. But if you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor.

Diagnosing Vaginal Cancer

To diagnose vaginal cancer, your doctor will conduct a full physical and pelvic examination and take your personal and family medical history. Your doctor may perform one or more of the following:

Pelvic Exam

A doctor or nurse inserts one or two gloved and lubricated fingers into the vagina while placing the other hand on the lower abdomen to examine the vagina, cervix, uterus and ovaries.

Pap Test

Using a speculum to open the vagina, the doctor can collect a small sample of vaginal and cervical cells. A pathologist uses a microscope to analyze the cells for abnormalities.


A doctor uses an instrument called a colposcope to examine the vagina and cervix for signs of cancer or abnormal cells. The colposcope can be used to remove cells for biopsy.


A pathologist analyzes a small sample of cells from the vagina under a microscope to detect cancer.

Tests to Detect Spread of Vaginal Cancer

Some tests and procedures are used after you are diagnosed with vaginal cancer to determine if your cancer has spread to other organs. This information is helpful in planning your treatment and in staging your cancer.

Tests used for vaginal cancer spread may include:

Chest X-ray

This exam uses X-rays to produce images of the organs and bones inside the chest, especially the lungs.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

A CT scan is an X-ray examination that makes a series of detailed images taken from different angles. An X-ray machine linked to a computer creates multidimensional images.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI uses a high-powered magnet and radio waves to produce detailed images of the body.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

A PET scan is a multidimensional imaging examination used to find malignant tumor cells in the body.


A thin instrument called a cytoscope is inserted into the bladder through the urethra to produce images of the bladder and take tissue samples.


A uteroscope is inserted through the bladder and into the uterus to produce images of the uterus and take tissue samples.


A proctoscope is inserted into the rectum to detect signs of disease and possibly remove tissue samples for analysis.

Cervical Biopsy

A doctor collects a sample of tissue from the cervix to determine if cancer has spread. The doctor also might remove a sample from the vulva.

(Source: National Cancer Institute)

Staging Vaginal Cancer

If you receive a vaginal cancer diagnosis, staging is a way of determining the degree and type of your cancer. This information helps your team of specialists plan the best treatment. The staging classification remains the same throughout treatment.

Vaginal cancer may be diagnosed in one of four stages:

Stage I

In stage I, cancer is found in the vaginal wall only.

Stage II

In stage II, cancer has spread through the wall of the vagina to the tissue around the vagina. Cancer has not spread to the wall of the pelvis.

Stage III

In stage III, cancer has spread to the wall of the pelvis.

Stage IV

Stage IV is divided into stage IVA and stage IVB:

Stage IVA

Cancer may have spread to one or more of the following areas:

  • The lining of the bladder
  • The lining of the rectum
  • Beyond the area of the pelvis that has the bladder, uterus, ovaries and cervix

Stage IVB

Cancer has spread to parts of the body that are not near the vagina, such as the lung or bone

(Source: National Cancer Institute)

If you have received a vaginal cancer diagnosis, or if you want a second opinion or just want to speak to a vaginal cancer specialist, we are here to help you. Call 800-293-5066 or 614-293-5066 to make an appointment.

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The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute

460 West 10th Avenue

Columbus, Ohio 43210

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