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
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
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.