Risks for vaginal cancer

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Some things can affect your risk, or chance, of developing cancer. Certain behaviours, substances or conditions can increase or decrease the risk. Most cancers are the result of many risks. But sometimes cancer develops in people who don't have any risks.

The risk of developing vaginal cancer increases with age. It occurs more often in people older than 60 years of age.

Some of the things that increase the risk for vaginal cancer may also cause vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). VAIN is a precancerous condition of the vagina. It isn't cancer, but it can sometimes become vaginal cancer if it's not treated. Find out more about precancerous conditions of the vagina.

The following can increase your risk for vaginal cancer. Some of these risks can't be changed. But in other cases, there are things you can do to lower your risk.

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)

Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth

History of squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL)

Weak immune system

History of anal, cervical or vulvar cancer

Radiation therapy to the pelvis

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 related viruses. HPV can cause warts (called papillomas) on different parts of the body, including the genitals. HPV infections are very common because the virus is easily passed by skin-to-skin contact with any infected area of the body. It is mainly spread through sexual contact, including oral sex.

Many people who develop vaginal cancer have an HPV infection. But having an HPV infection doesn't mean that you will develop vaginal cancer.

Learn more about human papillomavirus (HPV) and how to reduce your risk of HPV.

Exposure to diethystilbestrol (DES) before birth

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a form of synthetic estrogen. It was used between 1940 and 1971 to help prevent miscarriage and early labour.

People born to women who took DES during their pregnancy have a higher risk for a type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. When this type of vaginal cancer is related to DES exposure, it is more likely to develop at a younger age than other types of vaginal cancer.

History of squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL)

Squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL) is also called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). It is a precancerous condition of the cervix. If you have had SIL, you have a higher risk for vaginal cancer. The risk is greater for people with a history of high-grade SIL (HSIL).

Weak immune system

Having a weak immune system (immunosuppression) increases your risk for vaginal cancer. You may have a weak immune system for different reasons, including if you have HIV (AIDS) or if you have had an organ transplant and must take medicines to suppress your immune system.

History of anal, cervical or vulvar cancer

People who have a personal or family history of any cancer of the anus or genitals have a higher risk for vaginal cancer. This includes anal, cervical and vulvar cancer. These cancers share some of the same risk factors as vaginal cancer, such as HPV infection.

Radiation therapy to the pelvis

People who received radiation therapy to the pelvis to treat cancer or another health condition have a higher risk for vaginal cancer.

Possible risk factors

The following have been linked with vaginal cancer, but more research is needed to know for sure that they are risks:

  • smoking tobacco
  • using a vaginal pessary (a medical device used to help support organs in the pelvis or control urine leakage)
  • having a hysterectomy for cervical cancer or precancerous conditions of the cervix

Understanding your cancer risk

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your doctor questions about risks. Learn how cancer can be prevented and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Expert review and references

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