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Vaginal cancer

Risk factors for vaginal cancer

Certain factors may increase a woman's risk of developing vaginal cancer, such as age, smoking and previous conditions.

Common risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

Lifestyle

Smoking: A woman who smokes has at least double the risk of developing vaginal cancer as a woman who does not smoke.

Alcohol: Some studies have suggested that drinking alcohol increases a woman’s risk for developing vaginal cancer, although it is not clear if this is entirely caused by alcohol, or whether it may be related to associated risk factors such as smoking or HPV infection.

Other factors and conditions

Age: Approximately 85 percent of the cases of vaginal cancer occur in women who are over the age of 40, and nearly 50 percent of cases occur in women age 70 or older.

Vaginal adenosis: This non-cancerous condition is characterized by glandular cells lining areas of the vagina instead of flat squamous epithelial cells. Approximately 40 percent of women who have begun menstruating have this condition, and nearly all women whose mothers took DES will develop it. Women with adenosis have a small but increased risk for developing vaginal cancer, and regular screening and follow-up is recommended.

Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a group of more than 100 viruses, some of which are sexually transmitted and may increase a person’s risk for developing other cancers of the reproductive system. Some of the more common HPV strains may cause warts (papillomas), while other types of HPV infections may have no visible symptoms. HPV types 16 and 18 have been most strongly linked to cancer. Women under age 30 are at greatest risk of HPV infection. Protection against HPV may help many younger women reduce their vaginal cancer risk, and two vaccines are currently approved for use in the United States.

Cervical cancer: A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer or cervical dysplasia (a precancerous condition) may increase the risk for developing vaginal cancer. This may be related to shared risk factors, such as HPV infection and smoking.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES): Women whose mothers were exposed to DES, a hormonal drug that was used from 1940 to 1971 to prevent miscarriage, are at increased risk for developing a specific subtype of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma. The risk is highest in daughters of women who took this drug during the first 16 weeks of their pregnancy. However, the risk is low, and only 1 out of 1,000 women whose mothers took the drug will develop this type of cancer. These women are also more likely to develop precancerous high-grade vaginal dysplasia, as well as a condition known as vaginal adenosis.