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What are the risk factors?

The exact cause of vulvar cancer is unknown, but there are several things that increase the risk of developing it.

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) – This is a precancerous condition that causes changes in the skin of the vulva. The vulva may itch, burn or feel sore. Often there are no symptoms at all. VIN may disappear on its own, but some people need treatment. The condition sometimes becomes cancerous – about one in
three women diagnosed with vulvar cancer also has VIN.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) – HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause people to develop VIN. It can be many years between infection with HPV and the first signs of VIN or vulvar cancer. HPV is a common virus and most people with this virus don’t develop vulvar or any other type of cancer. Although
HPV is sexually transmitted, vulvar cancer itself is not contagious and it can’t be passed on to other people through sexual contact.

Abnormal cervical screening test – If any abnormal cell changes are found on a cervical screening test, you have a slightly higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Other skin conditions – Vulvar lichen planus, vulvar lichen sclerosus and extramammary Paget’s disease are skin conditions that can cause itching and soreness. If not treated, they can cause permanent scarring, narrow the vaginal opening and, in a small number of people, develop into vulvar cancer after many years.

Other cancers – If you have had cervical cancer or vaginal cancer, you have an increased risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Smoking – Cigarette smoking increases the risk of developing VIN and vulvar cancer. This may be because smoking can make the immune system work less effectively.

Weakened immune system – People who have had an organ transplant or have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are at higher risk of developing vulvar cancer because their immune system is not working normally.

Featured resource

Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

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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.