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Vaginal Cancer Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention

Anything that increases your chance of getting vaginal cancer is considered a risk factor. So, knowing your risk factors can help reduce your risk. Talk to your doctor if you think you are at increased risk and learn the symptoms to watch for.

Causes of vaginal cancer

There are several factors that can make it more likely you will develop vaginal cancer including:

  • Age. Those over 60 are at higher risk. 
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV increases your risk of squamous cell carcinoma in the vagina.
  • Exposure to DES. Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a medication that was given to some pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to help prevent miscarriage. If your mother took DES during pregnancy, you were exposed to it before you were born. Today, cancer from this exposure is extremely rare.
  • Vaginal adenosis. This is a condition where the cells in the vagina change from squamous (scale-like) cells to glandular cells (cells that produce a secretion).
  • A history of cervical cancer. If you’ve been treated for cervical cancer or abnormal cells in your cervix, your risk of vaginal cancer is higher.
  • Smoking. The risk of vaginal cancer is twice as high in smokers compared to nonsmokers.
  • Alcohol. Drinking alcohol in excess can increase your risk.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other immune system disorders.

How to reduce your risk of vaginal cancer

You can’t completely eliminate your chances of getting vaginal cancer, but these steps can help you reduce your risk:

  • Stay on track with your pelvic exams, HPV and Pap tests. If you are ages 21-29, you should get a Pap test every three years. If you are ages 30-64 get an HPV test, with or without Pap test, every five years is recommended. After age 65 your doctor can help you decide if you should continue screening. Regular exams can increase the odds that vaginal cancer is discovered early, when it’s most treatable.
  • Consider the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine prevents six types of cancer, including vaginal cancer. The vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 9-26. If you are ages 27-45 your doctor can help determine if it’s a good choice for you.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of developing vaginal cancer. Get help to quit smoking

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