Vulvar cancer

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Risk factors for vulvar 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 vulvar cancer develops in women who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

The risk of developing vulvar cancer increases with age. It occurs 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 more human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in women younger than 40 years of age.

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.

Known risk factors

There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for vulvar cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

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

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.

Find out more about human papillomavirus (HPV).

Personal history of vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)

VIN is a precancerous condition of the vulva. Women diagnosed with VIN have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Weakened immune system

The immune system can be weakened by drugs that people take after an organ transplant. These drugs suppress the immune system so the body won’t reject the organ. The immune system can also be weakened by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

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

Personal history of vulvar skin conditions

Women with a history of vulvar skin conditions have an increased risk of vulvar cancer. These conditions include lichen sclerosis, which is a benign condition of the vulva that causes long-term, or 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

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

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

Possible risk factors

The following factors have been linked with vulvar cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show they are known risk factors. Further study is needed to clarify the role of these factors for vulvar cancer.

Smoking

While some studies suggest that smoking increases a woman’s risk of developing vulvar cancer, more studies are needed to confirm this link.

Personal history of melanoma

A few studies suggest that women with a personal or family history of melanoma have a higher risk of developing melanoma of the vulva.

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.

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