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What are the risk factors?
The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown, but factors known to increase the risk of developing it include:
Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) – This is a precancerous condition that often has no symptoms. It means that the cells in the lining of the vagina are abnormal and may develop into cancer after many years. However, most people with VAIN do not develop vaginal cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) – HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause some people to develop VAIN. It can be many years between infection with HPV and the first signs of VAIN or vaginal cancer. HPV is a common virus and most people with HPV don’t develop vaginal or any other type of cancer.
Smoking – Cigarette smoking may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer. This may be because smoking can make the immune system work less effectively.
History of gynaecological cancer – If you have previously been diagnosed with cervical cancer or early cervical cell changes that were considered to be precancerous, you may be more likely to be diagnosed with vaginal cancer.
Diethylstilboestrol (DES) – This synthetic hormone drug has been identified as a cause of a type of vaginal adenocarcinoma called clear cell carcinoma.
Between 1938 and 1971 – and occasionally beyond – DES was prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. It is no longer prescribed to pregnant women in Australia.
The female children of women who took DES (called DES daughters) have an increased risk of developing a range of health problems. About one in 1000 DES daughters develops clear cell carcinoma of the vagina or cervix.
Vaginal cancer is not contagious and it can’t be passed to other people through sexual contact. It is not caused by an inherited faulty gene. For more information on the risk factors, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal CancersDownload resource
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed October 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Alison Brand, Director, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jane Conroy-Wright, Consumer; Rebecca James, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Suparna Karpe, Clinical Psychologist, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Pearly Khaw, Consultant Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Sally McCoull, Consumer; A/Prof Orla McNally, Gynaecological Oncologist and Director, Oncology/Dysplasia, The Royal Women’s Hospital, and Director, Gynaecology Tumour Stream, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Haley McNamara, Social Worker and Project Manager, Care at End of Life Project, Queensland Health, QLD; Tamara Wraith, Senior Clinician – Physiotherapy, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC.