Risks for vulvar cancer

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

The risk of developing vulvar cancer increases with age. It happens most often in women older than 70 years of age. But the number of younger women developing vulvar cancer has been increasing. This is because there are now more human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in women younger than 40 years of age, and HPV is one of the risks for vulvar cancer.

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) is a precancerous condition of the vulva. Some of the things that increase the risk for vulvar cancer may also cause this precancerous condition. It isn't cancer, but can sometimes become vulvar cancer if it isn't treated. Find out more about precancerous conditions of the vulva.

The following can increase your risk for vulvar cancer. There are things you can do to lower your risk and help protect you from developing cancer.

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)

Weak immune system

Personal history of vulvar skin conditions

Personal history of cervical, vaginal or anal cancer

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papillomavirus (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 HPV-infected area of the body. It is mainly spread through sexual contact, including oral sex.

Many women who develop vulvar cancer have an HPV infection. This is especially true for younger women who develop this cancer.

But having an HPV infection doesn't mean that you will develop vulvar cancer. Many different types of HPV can infect the vulva. Only some types cause abnormal changes to cells that may turn into cancer.

You can lower your risk of infection by getting vaccinated against HPV and practising safer sex. You should also have regular pelvic exams.

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

Weak immune system

Having a weak immune system (immunosuppression) increases your risk for vulvar cancer. This includes people with HIV or AIDS and people who have had an organ transplant and must take medicines to suppress their immune system.

A weak immune system can lower the body's defences against infection and disease. It can increase the risk for an HPV infection. When the immune system is weak, there is a greater chance that precancerous changes to cells in the vulva will develop into vulvar cancer.

Personal history of vulvar skin conditions

If you have a history of vulvar skin conditions, you have a higher risk for vulvar cancer. These conditions include lichen sclerosus, which is a non-cancerous (benign) condition of the vulva that causes long-term (chronic) inflammation of the skin.

Having a vulvar skin condition can cause damage to the skin of the vulva over the long term. This damage may be what increases the risk for vulvar cancer.

Personal history of cervical, vaginal or anal cancer

If you have been diagnosed with cancer of the cervix, vagina or anus, you have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer. This may be because these cancers have similar risks as vulvar cancer, such as an infection with HPV.

Find out more about cervical cancer, vaginal cancer and anal cancer.

Possible risks

The following have been linked with vulvar cancer, but there is not enough evidence to know for sure that they are risks. More research is needed.

  • smoking tobacco
  • personal history of melanoma skin cancer

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

  • Canadian Cancer Society | Société canadienne du cancer
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) . Volume 90: Human Papillomaviruses . 2007 : http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol90/mono90.pdf.
  • Moroney JW, Kunos C, Wilkinson EJ, Levenback CF . Chapter 19: Vulva. Barakat RR, Markman M, Randall ME (eds.). Principles and Practice of Gynecologic Oncology. 6th ed. 2013.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100B: Biological agents: a review of human carcinogens. 2012: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100B/mono100B.pdf.
  • Klopp AH, Eifel PJ, Berek JS, Konstantinopoulos PA . Cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 72:1013-1047.
  • Madeleine MM, Johnson LG . Vulvar and vaginal cancers. Thun MJ (ed.). Schottenfeld and Fraumeni Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 4th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2018: 49: 947 - 951.
  • Madeleine MM, Daling JR . Cancers of the vulva and vagina. Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr (eds.). Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006: 55:1068-1074.
  • Hacker NF, Eifel PJ . Chapter 13: Vulvar Cancer. Berek JS (ed). Berek & Hacker's Gynecologic Oncology. 6th ed. Wolters Kluwer; 2015.
  • American Cancer Society. Vulvar Cancer. 2017: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/vulvar-cancer.html.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Vulvar Cancer. 2017: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/vulvar-cancer.

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