Diagnosing vaginal cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was reviewed on June 7, 2022.

In diagnosing vaginal cancer, a multidisciplinary team of vaginal cancer experts perform a variety of diagnostic tests using a range of tools and technologies, including imaging and lab tests, to track the size of the tumor(s), monitor the response to treatment and modify treatment plans when needed.

Commonly used diagnostic procedures include:


During a biopsy, a doctor removes a sample of tissue or fluid from the body. A pathologist inspects the cells under a microscope to determine whether they are cancerous. If the cells are found to be cancerous, a biopsy may help determine whether the cancer began at the site of the biopsy or started somewhere else in the body and spread to the biopsy site. A biopsy is an important part of making a vaginal cancer diagnosis, particularly in determining the stage of vaginal cancer.


If abnormal tissue is identified, your doctor may take a sample of the cells and send them to a pathologist for closer examination and testing.


Also known as a lymph node dissection, this procedure is performed to remove lymph nodes in the groin and pelvic areas to determine whether the cancer has spread.

Proctosigmoidoscopy and cystoscopy

A proctosigmoidoscopy is used to detect if the cancer has spread to the rectum or colon and a cystoscopy to the bladder.

Pelvic exam

During a pelvic exam for vaginal cancer, the doctor will manually examine the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and rectum, which are explored in greater detail with imaging technology.

Imaging tests

CT scan: This test is typically used to help determine the size and shape of the tumor, or to examine whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Sometimes, if the cancer is suspected to have spread beyond the vagina, a CT scan may also be used to guide the biopsy needle to get a tissue sample from the suspicious site.

MRI: Often used for patients with cancers in the pelvic region, MRI is used to identify enlarged lymph nodes in the groin, which may indicate that the cancer has spread. MRI is also used to determine whether the cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord.

PET/CT scan: This technology combines position emission tomography (PET) and CT technology in one machine, showing what is happening in the body at a cellular level, before any tumors may be present.

Next topic: How is vaginal cancer treated?

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