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Risk factors

As with many cancers, the exact cause of most vaginal cancers is unknown. However, vaginal cancers have been linked to certain risk factors.

A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer, and not having risk factors does not mean that you won’t get cancer. If you think you may be at risk of vaginal cancer, you should discuss this with your doctor.

Vaginal cancer is not infectious.

The known risk factors for vaginal cancer are:

  • diethylstilbestrol (DES)
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • previous cervical cancer or pre-cervical cancer
  • previous radiotherapy to the pelvic area.

HPV infection

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is also a risk factor for vaginal cancer. HPV is a common infection affecting the skin surface of any part of the body, including the vagina and the cervix.

This virus is spread from person to person through genital skin contact. It is so common that it could be considered a normal part of being sexually active.

More than 100 types of HPV have been identified, but about a dozen types are considered high risk because they can lead to cancer.

Around eight out of 10 women will become infected with genital HPV at some time in their lives and, for about 98 per cent of women, it is cleared rapidly by the immune system. However, HPV does not often cause any symptoms, so many people are unaware they have the virus.

HPV can cause precancerous cells that can be detected by a simple test called the Pap test. All women who have ever had sex should have a Pap test every two years from the ages of 18–70 years.

A vaccine against some types of HPV is available.

Cervical cancer or pre-cervical cancer

Women who have had cervical cancer or pre-cervical cancer in the past are more likely to get vaginal cancer.

Radiotherapy to the pelvic area

Women who have had radiotherapy to the pelvic area also have a slightly higher risk of vaginal cancer, but this complication of radiotherapy is very rare, and women who have had this treatment still only have a tiny risk of developing vaginal cancer.