Like radiation therapy, surgery is used primarily for early-stage vaginal cancer that is limited to the vagina or, in selected cases, nearby tissue. Large tumors present a challenge since so many important organs are located in the pelvis.
There are several operations to treat vaginal cancer:
Removal of small tumors or lesions: Cancer only on the surface of the vagina is removed along with a small part 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 of the cancer (see section below on staging), it may be necessary to perform a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and ovaries) and nearby lymph nodes at the same time.
Removal of the majority of the pelvic organs (pelvic exenteration): If the cancer has spread to the pelvic area or if vaginal cancer has recurred, it may to necessary to remove the majority of the pelvic organs, including the bladder, ovaries, uterus, vagina, rectum and lower colon. This surgery is rarely performed, but may be the only option of women with advanced vaginal cancer.
Side Effects of Surgery
Some discomfort is common after surgery. It often can be controlled with medicine. Tell your treatment team if you are experiencing pain. Other possible side effects are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Infection, fever
- Wound problem
- Fullness due to fluid in the abdomen
- Shortness of breath due to fluid around the lungs
- Swelling caused by lymphedema, usually in the legs
- Blood clots
- Difficulty urinating or constipation
Most of these side effects are temporary. Be sure to talk with your treatment team members about any side effects you experience. They can help you find ways to manage them.