Vaginal melanoma

Vaginal melanoma is a rare cancer. It develops from the cells in the skin that produce pigment, which gives the skin its colour. It usually develops in the lower third of the vagina.

How it starts

Melanoma starts in cells called melanocytes. These are pigment producing cells found mostly in the skin.

Most melanomas develop in parts of the body exposed to the sun. But you can get them anywhere, including body organs, because there are melanocytes in these areas too.

It’s not clear why melanomas can form in parts of the body that are not exposed to the sun.

How common is vaginal melanoma?

Vaginal melanoma is rare. Only about 3 out of 100 vaginal cancers (about 3%) are melanoma. The average age of diagnosis with this type of cancer is 55 years or older.

Symptoms

It is important that you see your GP if you have any symptoms or are worried about any abnormal areas. It may be nothing, but in many situations, the earlier a cancer is diagnosed the better the outcome is.

Symptoms include:

  • vaginal bleeding in between periods or after the menopause
  • bleeding after sex
  • vaginal discharge that smells or is blood stained
  • pain during sex
  • a lump or growth in the vagina
  • a vaginal itch that won't go away

Many people don’t have symptoms. Your doctor or nurse may find vaginal melanoma during a routine cervical screening test or vaginal examination.

Tests

You have some tests to diagnose vaginal melanoma. These may include:

  • a biopsy of the abnormal area
  • blood tests 
  • an MRI scan
  • a CT scan
  • ultrasound scan of the lymph nodes Open a glossary item in the groin - these are the nodes nearest to the vagina

Staging

Staging is a way of describing the size of a cancer and how far it has grown.

There are different ways of staging vaginal cancer. Most doctors use the system developed by the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO). They might also use the TNM system. TNM stands for Tumour, Node, Metastases (TNM).  

Treatment

The treatment you have depends on the size of the cancer, and whether it has spread (the stage). Doctors will also consider your general health. 

A team of doctors and other professionals discuss the best treatment and care for you. They are called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). The team includes melanoma and gynaecological cancer specialist and cancer nurses.

Treatments for vaginal melanoma include: 

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy
  • immunotherapy
  • targeted drugs

You may have treatment as part of a clinical trial.

Follow up

You have regular check ups once you finish treatment. Your doctor will examine you and ask about your general health. This is your chance to ask questions and to tell your doctor if anything is worrying you.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

Research and clinical trials

There may be fewer clinical trials for rare types of cancer than for more common types.

It is hard to organise and run trials for rare cancers. Getting enough patients is critical to the success of a trial. The results won't be strong enough to prove that one type of treatment is better than another if the trial is too small.

The International Rare Cancers Initiative (IRCI) aims to develop more research into new treatments for rare cancers. They are designing trials that involve several countries so that more people will be available to enter trials.

Coping

Coping with a diagnosis of a rare cancer can be especially difficult, both practically and emotionally. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.

Talking to other people

Talking to other people who have the same thing can also help.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

The Melanoma Focus Helpline is a new confidential service for anyone in the UK who has a question about any aspect of melanoma.

The Rare Cancer Alliance offer support and information to people affected by rare cancers.

Last reviewed: 
02 Mar 2022
Next review due: 
02 Mar 2025
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