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Vaginal Cancer: Risk Factors

What is a risk factor? 

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. 

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer: 

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with 1 or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthy foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, your healthcare provider may check your weight or help you lose weight.

Who is at risk for vaginal cancer?

Risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Older age. Most women are older than age 60 when diagnosed with vaginal cancer.

  • Having human papillomavirus. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses. They can cause genital warts and have been linked to many types of cancer and precancer. If you are infected with certain types of HPV, you may be at higher risk for vaginal cancer. You’re at risk for HPV infection if you started having sex in your early teens, have had many sexual partners, or have had unprotected sex at any age. You’re also at risk if you have a suppressed immune system. This may occur if you have HIV, or have had an organ transplant and take medicines to suppress your immune system. You may be able to protect yourself from HPV with a vaccine. Talk with your healthcare provider to see if it is right for you. 

  • Having cervical cancer. Cervical cancer or precancer may increase your risk for squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina. This may be because cervical cancer and vaginal cancer have some of the same risk factors.

  • Smoking. Smoking increases your risk for many kinds of cancer, including vaginal cancer.

  • Being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES). If your mother took this hormonal medicine while pregnant with you, you are at higher risk for a very rare type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.

  • Having vaginal adenosis. In some women, areas of their vagina may grow cells that look more like those found in the cervix, fallopian tubes, and uterus. This is called vaginal adenosis. It increases your risk for vaginal cancer. Vaginal adenosis occurs in almost all women who were exposed to DES as a baby in the womb. In women with adenosis who were not exposed to DES, the risk for clear cell adenocarcinoma is very low.

  • Having HIV. The virus that causes AIDS increases your risk for vaginal cancer. 

What are your risk factors? 

There is no standard screening test to find vaginal cancer early, when it's small and easier to treat. Screening tests check for signs of disease in people who don't have any symptoms. In some cases, a healthcare provider may notice vaginal changes during screening for cervical cancer. Make sure to get regular cervical cancer screening. This is done with a pelvic exam, a Pap test, and an HPV test. If you think you may be at risk for vaginal cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do to help lower your risk, and what symptoms you can watch for.

Online Medical Reviewer: Goodman, Howard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2018
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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