Causes and risk factors of vaginal cancer

Certain risk factors may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer. The main risk factor for vaginal cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

What are risk factors?

Certain things called risk factors may increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get cancer. And not having a risk factor does not mean that you will not get it.

Like other cancers, vaginal cancer is not infectious. You cannot catch it or pass it on to other people.

If you are worried about vaginal cancer and would like to talk to someone, we're here. You can:

Age

Vaginal cancer is more common in women over the age of 60.

HPV (human papilloma virus)

The main risk factor for vaginal cancer is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). But most people who get HPV will not get vaginal cancer.

A weakened immune system

Your immune system helps protect your body from infection and illness. If the immune system is not working well, it is less likely to get rid of infections like HPV.

Vaginal intra-epithelial neoplasia (VAIN)

VAIN is the name for pre-cancerous changes in cells lining the vagina. It can develop if HPV remains in the vagina for a long time.

If VAIN is not treated, it may develop into vaginal cancer.

Cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix

If you have had cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (CIN) at least 5 years ago you may have an increased risk of developing vaginal cancer. This is likely to be related to HPV, which is the main cause of cervical cancer and CIN. But most people who have had cervical cancer or CIN will never develop vaginal cancer.

Radiotherapy to the pelvis

If you have had radiotherapy to the pelvis you may have a very slightly increased risk of vaginal cancer.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES)

This is a risk factor for a very rare type of vaginal cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA). Your risk is increased if your mother was prescribed the drug DES when she was pregnant with you. DES has not been used for a long time. Doctors prescribed it to some pregnant women between 1940 and 1970. Most women whose mothers took this drug will never develop vaginal cancer. But they should have yearly check-ups to detect early signs of CCA.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our vaginal cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Adams T, Cuello M. Cancer of the Vagina: FIGO cancer report 2018. International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics. p14-21.

    Royal College of Radiotherapy: Clinical Oncology. Radiotherapy dose fractionation, third edition. 2019.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Content under review

Due to the pandemic, there have been delays in us updating this information as quickly as we would have wanted. Our team is working hard to put this right.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.