Risk factors for vaginal cancer
A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes vaginal cancer develops in women who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.
The chance of developing vaginal cancer increases with age. It happens most often in women 60 years of age and older.
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) is a precancerous condition of the vagina. It isn’t cancer, but it can sometimes become vaginal cancer if it isn’t treated. Some of the risk factors for vaginal cancer may also cause VAIN. Find out more about precancerous conditions of the vagina.
Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.
There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for vaginal cancer.
Many women who develop vaginal cancer, especially younger women, have a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. But having an HPV infection doesn’t mean that you will develop vaginal cancer. Many different types of HPV can infect the vagina. Only some of them cause abnormal changes to cells that may turn into cancer.
Find out more about human papillomavirus (HPV).
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a form of estrogen. It was used between 1940 and 1971 to help prevent miscarriage in women who had certain problems during pregnancy.
Daughters of women who took DES during their pregnancy have a higher than average risk of developing a type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. The risk appears to be greatest when the women took DES during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy. The average age of diagnosis for DES-related vaginal cancer is much younger than for other vaginal cancers. DES-related vaginal cancer doesn’t happen much anymore because DES has not been given to pregnant women for over 40 years.
Women who have been diagnosed with a high-grade precancerous condition of the cervix have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer. HPV is linked to the development of precancerous conditions of the cervix.
Find out more about precancerous conditions of the cervix.
Women who have been diagnosed with cancer of the cervix, vulva or anus have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer. This may be due to the fact that these cancers have similar risk factors, such as HPV infection.
Women who had radiation therapy to treat cervical cancer have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer.
Women with a weakened immune system (immunosuppression) have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer. This includes people with a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and those who have had an organ transplant and must take medicines to suppress their immune system.
A weakened immune system can increase a woman’s risk for HPV infection and increase the chance that the infection won’t go away. When the immune system is weakened, there is a greater chance that precancerous changes to cells in the vagina will develop into vaginal cancer.
Possible risk factors
The following factors have been linked with vaginal cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show for sure that they are risk factors. More research is needed to clarify the role of these factors for vaginal cancer.
- smoking tobacco
- long-term (chronic) vaginal irritation
- having a hysterectomy for cervical cancer or precancerous conditions of the cervix
Questions to ask your healthcare team
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.
A female sex hormone that causes the female sex characteristics to develop (such as breasts) and is necessary for reproduction.
Estrogen is made mainly by the ovaries. Small amounts of estrogen are also made in the adrenal glands. It may also be produced in the lab to treat certain conditions or as a type of birth control.
A surgical procedure to remove the uterus (womb). The cervix (the lower, narrow part of the uterus) may also be removed.
Other structures may be removed during a hysterectomy, including the ovaries (oophorectomy).
Different types of hysterectomy include partial hysterectomy, total hysterectomy and radical hysterectomy.
A hysterectomy may be performed through the vagina (vaginal hysterectomy) or through the abdomen wall (abdominal hysterectomy).
How can you stop cancer before it starts?
Discover how 16 factors affect your cancer risk and how you can take action with our interactive tool – It’s My Life! Presented in partnership with Desjardins.