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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 tobacco use, 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 always cause the disease.

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

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there's 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 about risk factors can help you make choices that might help lower your risk. For instance, 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 and help you make a plan to lose weight.

Who is at risk for vaginal cancer?

Risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Older age. Most women are older than age 50 when diagnosed with vaginal cancer. Almost half of these cancers are found in women age 70 and older.

  • Having human papillomavirus. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses. They can cause genital warts and have been linked to many kinds of cancer. If you are infected with certain high-risk types of HPV, you may be at higher risk for vaginal cancer.

  • Having cervical cancer. A history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer may increase your risk for vaginal cancer. This may be because cervical cancer and vaginal cancer have some of the same risk factors, like smoking and HPV.

  • Smoking. Smoking increases your risk for many kinds of cancer. It doubles your risk for vaginal cancer.

  • Being exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES). If your mother took this hormone drug 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. If you have adenosis, your doctor may talk to you about tests to look for vaginal cancer.

  • 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.

Sometimes vaginal changes are noticed 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: Howard Goodman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 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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