Frequently Asked Questions About Vaginal Cancer

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about vaginal cancer.

Q: What are the risk factors for vaginal cancer?

A: Certain factors can make one woman more likely to get vaginal cancer than another woman. These are called risk factors. A woman can have all of the risk factors and still not get the disease. Or she can have no known risk factors and still get vaginal cancer. Doctors are not exactly sure what causes vaginal cancer, but these are some things that may increase risk.

  • Age. Women over the age of 60 are more at risk for vaginal squamous cell carcinoma.

  • HPV infection. Women infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may be at higher risk of getting vaginal squamous cell cancer. High-risk sexual behavior, such as having many sexual partners, can increase a woman's risk for HPV infection, which causes genital warts. The risk is even higher if a woman with HPV has a suppressed immune system from HIV/AIDS or another immune system problem. This makes it more difficult for the body to fight the HPV infection.

  • Cervical or vulvar cancer. The cervix is the lower end of the uterus. The vulva forms the external sex organs. The vagina lies between these two organs. Having cervical or vulvar cancer increases the risk for squamous cell carcinoma of the vagina. Having precancerous conditions of the cervix may also increase this risk. This is thought to be true because cervical and vaginal cancers share similar risk factors.

  • Smoking. As with many other cancers, smoking may increase the risk of vaginal cancer.

  • DES. Women whose mothers took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) when pregnant with them may be more at risk for getting clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina.

  • Vaginal adenosis. This is a change in cells lining the vagina. This change makes them look more like cells found in areas of the uterus. Adenosis happens in almost all women who were exposed to DES while in utero. In women not exposed to DES who have adenosis, the risk for clear cell adenocarcinoma is not known.


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