10 Scientifically Proven Causes Of Vaginal Cancer

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Causes Of Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is a rare cancer that may begin in the vagina or spread from the cervix, womb, or ovaries. This is why a history of cervical or uterine cancer is a major risk factor. Infection by the human papilloma virus, drinking alcohol, and smoking are significant causes. Smoking can raise the risk by 2 times. Other rare causes are pelvic radiotherapy, abnormalities in the vagina, and the use of the pregnancy drug DES by the patient's mother.

Vaginal cancer is a rare type of cancer that begins in the vagina or spreads to the vagina from other body parts like the cervix, womb, or ovaries. The former type is called primary vaginal cancer, while the latter type is known as secondary vaginal cancer.1

The exact cause of most vaginal cancers is unknown. A number of other conditions may cause cells of the vagina to become cancerous. However, scientists have zeroed in on some factors that may cause vaginal cancer.2

There are different kinds of risk factors. Some risk factors such as the person’s age or race can’t be changed. But others preventable factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet can definitely be changed. Sometimes, a person with one or more such risk factor may never develop vaginal cancer. On the other hand, not having any risk factors doesn’t mean that a person won’t develop the disease.3 Some well-established causes of vaginal cancer are mentioned here.

1. Age Above 70

Vaginal cancer may occur in elderly women

Squamous cell cancer of the vagina primarily occurs in elderly women. Only 15% of cases are found in women younger than 40. Around 50% of the cases occur in women who are over 70 years old.4

2. Human Papilloma Virus Infections

HPV can lead to vaginal cancer

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 related viruses. As some of them cause a type of growth called papilloma, they are known as papilloma viruses. Papillomas are commonly known as warts and are not cancers. While certain types of HPV cause common warts on the hands and feet, other types may result in warts on the lips or tongue. Some types of HPV can infect the outer parts of the genital organs in both men and women. It may also occur in the anal region resulting in raised, bumpy warts. Usually, HPV 6 and HPV 11 are the main cause of genital warts. These two types are rarely associated with cancer and hence called low-risk types of HPV. A person can contract HPV through skin-to-skin contact. One way HPV is spread is through sex, including vaginal and anal intercourse and even oral sex. Almost 9 out of 10 vaginal cancers and pre-cancers are linked to infection with HPV.5

3. Smoking

Smoking can lead to vaginal cancer

Smoking cigarettes increase the possibility of a woman’s risk of developing vaginal cancer by over 2 times. There is no safe limit for smoking.

4. Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol can cause vaginal cancer

Alcohol consumption can increase the risk of vaginal cancer. A study conducted on women who consumed alcohol found more cases of vaginal cancer than expected. Another study that also considered other risk factors found a decreased risk of vaginal cancer in women who do not consume alcohol.6

5. History Of Cancer In The Womb Or Cervix

Gynecological history of cancer can lead to vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is more likely to be diagnosed in women who have had a gynecological history of cancer including cervical cancer or early cervical cell changes that were considered to be pre-cancerous.7

Cancer in the womb (uterus) increases the likelihood of getting vaginal cancer by 3 times, and women who have had radiotherapy for their womb cancer are more at risk.8

The occurrence of cervical cancer or pre-cancer increases a woman’s risk of vaginal squamous cell cancer. The reason for this is that cervical and vaginal cancers have similar risk factors, such as HPV infection and smoking. Sometimes, treating cervical cancer with radiation therapy is said to increase the risk of vaginal cancer. However, more research is required to acknowledge this theory.9

6. Weakened Immunity Due To HIV And Lupus

HIV can cause vaginal cancer

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the same virus that causes the deadly AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Infection with HIV can also increase the risk of vaginal cancer because it weakens the immune system.10

Lupus, an autoimmune disease, too makes one prone to cancer of the vagina.

7. Mothers Treated With DES

Diethylstilbestrol can cause vaginal cancer

DES (Diethylstilbestrol) is a hormonal drug that was administered between 1940 and 1971 to some women to prevent miscarriage. This drug could pass on from the pregnant mother to the unborn girl child. So women whose mothers consumed DES when pregnant with them may develop clear-cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina or cervix. About 1 in every 1000 cases of vaginal cancer is because of this reason. So, about 99.9% of DES daughters do not develop this cancer. The use of DES during pregnancy was stopped by the FDA in 1971.11

8. History Of Pelvic Radiotherapy

Pelvic Radiotherapy may cause vaginal cancer

Radiotherapy performed on the pelvis for another reason may also slightly increase the risk of vaginal cancer. However, this complication is extremely rare.12

9. Abnormalities In The Vagina

Vaginal cancer caused due to Vaginal Adenosis

The vagina is lined by flat cells called squamous cells. But in some cases, in about 40% of women who have already started having periods, the vagina may have one or more areas lined by a different type of cells called glandular cells. These areas of gland cells are called adenosis. It occurs in almost all women who were exposed to DES during their mothers’ pregnancy. Though adenosis increases the risk of developing clear cell carcinoma, this cancer is quite rare.13

10. Wearing A Pessary

Vaginal irritation may lead to vaginal cancer

In some women, stretched pelvic ligaments may cause the uterus to sag into the vagina or even extend outside the vagina. One of the treatments for this condition is wearing a pessary, a device that keeps the uterus in place. Some studies show that chronic irritation of the vagina in women using a pessary may slightly increase the risk of squamous cell vaginal cancer. But this association is extremely rare, and more studies are needed to prove that pessaries actually cause vaginal cancer.14

References   [ + ]

1.Vaginal Cancer. NHS Choices. 2015.
2.Do We Know What Causes Vaginal Cancer? American Cancer Society.
3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14.What Are the Risk Factors for Vaginal Cancer? American Cancer Society. 2016.
5.What Are the Risk Factors for Vaginal Cancer? American Cancer Society. 2016.
7, 12.Cancer Of The Vagina. Cancer Council Victoria. 2016.
8.Vaginal Cancer Risks and Causes. Cancer Research UK.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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