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Vulvar cancer risk factors

Although the exact causes of vulvar cancer are unknown, certain factors that may increase a woman's risk of developing vulvar cancer have been identified. However, it is important to remember that having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee a woman will develop vulvar cancer.

cancer risks

Vulvar cancer risk factors

GENERAL

  • Age: Approximately 80 percent of the cases of vulvar cancer occur in women who are over the age of 50, and over 50 percent of cases occur in women age 70 or older.

LIFESTYLE

  • Smoking: Smoking is considered a risk factor for vulvar cancer, particularly in women who have already been infected with a high-risk HPV virus.

OTHER CONDITIONS

  • Human papilloma cirus (HPV): HPV is a group of more than 100 viruses, some of which are sexually transmitted and have been associated with vulvar cancers, as well as other cancers of the reproductive system. Some of the more common HPV strains cause noncancerous warts (papillomas), while other types of HPV infections may have no visible symptoms. HPV types 16, 18 and 31 have been most strongly linked to the development of cancer, and these are known as high-risk HPV viruses. Approximately 50 percent of all vulvar cancers are linked to infection with a high-risk virus, and these are more commonly seen in younger women. Protection against HPV infection may help many women reduce their vulvar cancer risk, and two vaccines are currently approved for use in the United States.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV infection can also increase a woman’s risk of developing vulvar cancer, possibly by increasing the likelihood of infection with HPV.
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN): This is a precancerous condition in which abnormal cells are restricted to the top layer of skin of the vulva (also known as the epithelium). VIN was previously called dysplasia, and is generally associated with HPV infection. While the presence of VIN increases the risk of eventually developing invasive vulvar cancer, not all women with VIN will develop cancer. However, it is important to treat the condition and to get regular gynecologic check-ups.
  • Lichen sclerosus: This condition is characterized by thin, itchy vulvar skin, and slightly increases a woman’s vulvar cancer risks.
  • Cervical cancer: A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer can increase the risk for developing vulvar cancer. This may be related to shared risk factors, such as HPV infection and smoking.

Understanding risk factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss it with your doctor.

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