Vaginal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing this type of cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a woman's risk of developing vaginal cancer:

  • Age. Squamous cell carcinoma most often occurs in women between 50 and 70 years old; approximately half of women with vaginal cancer are older than 60.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research shows that infection with this virus is a risk factor for vaginal cancer. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.  

  • Smoking. Smoking may increase a woman’s risk of developing vaginal cancer.

  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES). Women whose mothers took this drug during their pregnancy between the late 1940s and 1971 have an increased risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma. The average age of diagnosis is 19. Because most women of mothers who took DES are now between 40 and 70, the number of cases has declined. The long-term risks of DES exposure are not known.

  • Cervical cancer. Women who have had cervical cancer or cervical precancerous conditions have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Previous radiation therapy. Women who have had radiation therapy in the vaginal area have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Hysterectomy. Women who have had a hysterectomy, which is the removal of part or all of the uterus, have an increased risk of vaginal cancer.

  • Pessary use. Long-term vaginal irritation from using a pessary can increase a woman’s risk of vaginal cancer. A pessary is a device used to keep a sagging uterus in place.

Prevention and Early Detection

All women should have an annual gynecologic examination. During this exam, the doctor will take a family medical history and perform a general physical examination of the pelvis, during which the doctor will feel a woman’s uterus, vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs to check for any unusual changes. Regular pelvic examinations can help detect cancer or precancerous conditions at an early stage.

In addition, research has shown that certain factors can help prevent vaginal cancer:

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with multiple partners

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners

  • Practicing safe sex, including condom use, although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV

  • Having regular Pap tests (see Diagnosis) to find and treat precancerous conditions

  • Not starting to smoke

  • Quitting smoking, if you currently smoke

Gardasil, a vaccine used to prevent cervical cancer for girls and women between ages 9 and 26, is approved to prevent vaginal cancer. Gardasil helps prevent infection from the 4 most common strains or types of HPV. The vaccine does not protect people who already have HPV.

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to continue reading in this guide.