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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 women with VAIN do not develop vaginal cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Also known as the wart virus, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause women to develop VAIN. It can be many years between the initial infection with HPV and the first signs of VAIN or vaginal cancer. HPV is a common virus and most women with HPV don’t develop vaginal or any other type of cancer.

Smoking – Cigarette smoking doubles the risk of developing vaginal cancer. This may be because smoking can make the immune system work less effectively.

History of gynaecological cancer – Vaginal cancer is more likely to be diagnosed in women who have had cervical cancer or early cervical cell changes that were considered to be precancerous.

Radiation therapy to the pelvis – If you have had radiation therapy to the pelvis for another reason, you are at a slightly higher risk of vaginal cancer. This complication is very rare.

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. If you are concerned about this risk, see your GP.

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.