Vaginal cancer is highly treatable when it is detected early. Knowing the risk factors as well as the symptoms of the disease is a critical step in early detection. The risk factors for developing vaginal cancer include:
- Increasing age: The risk of vaginal cancer increases after age 60.
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES): DES was given to some pregnant women in the 1950s to prevent miscarriage. Women who were exposed to DES before birth have an increased risk of developing vaginal cancer.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of vaginal cancer.
- Exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that increases the risk of several cancers, including vulvar cancer and cervical cancer. Many young, sexually active women are exposed to HPV, but for most the infection goes away on its own. For some, the infection causes cell changes and increases the risk of cancer in the future. HPV has been linked to vaginal intra-epithelial neoplasia (VAIN), a skin condition that can develop into cancer over time. It is not cancer but is known as a pre-cancerous condition so it is monitored closely. In some women it may disappear on its own.
- Being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): This sexually transmitted virus weakens the immune system, which may make you more susceptible to HPV infections, thereby increasing your risk of vulvar cancer.
Not all women who develop vaginal cancer will have one of these risk factors. And those who have multiple risk factors may never develop vaginal cancer. That’s why it’s up to you to be aware of your health history and what is normal for your body. If you experience any of the symptoms of vaginal cancer or feel you are at an increased risk based on the list above, talk to your doctor.