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Risk Factors

Doctors do not know what causes most vaginal cancers. There is no way to predict whether a particular woman will get vaginal cancer. It is possible to develop vaginal cancer without being at high risk, and it is possible to be at high risk and not develop it. However, women who fall into the following groups may be more likely to develop vaginal cancer:

  • Women who have HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted disease that can increase the risk of several cancers of the reproductive organs, including vaginal and cervical cancer. In most women, an HPV infection will go away on its own, but for some, it causes cell changes that increase their future risk of cancer.
  • Women who have a history of precancerous vaginal conditions. Precancerous cells in the vagina are called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN). These cells are not malignant, but are different from normal cells. Most women who develop VAIN do not go on to develop cancer, but a few do. VAIN is caused by HPV infection.
  • Women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), because this increases the risk of VAIN
  • Women who have been treated for cervical cancer or precancerous cervical conditions
  • Women whose mothers took DES (diethylstilbestrol) to prevent miscarriage, a drug that was often prescribed in the 1950s, when they were pregnant. These women are at risk for a particular type of vaginal cancer, adenocarcinoma.
  • Women who have had multiple sexual partners (which increases the risk of an HPV infection)
  • Women who were unusually young when they first had sexual intercourse
  • Women who have an autoimmune condition, an HIV infection, or any other condition that causes the immune system to work less effectively. A weakened immune system increases a woman’s risk of vaginal cancer by increasing her risk of developing an HPV infection.
  • Women who smoke
  • Women who are older. The average vaginal cancer patient is diagnosed after the age of 60, and a woman’s risk of developing it increases as she gets older. However, vaginal cancer can affect women of any age.

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