7 Risk Factors for Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer is cancer of the vagina, or the canal leading from the outside of the body to the cervix. Even though vaginal cancer is rare, it's still a good idea to keep it on your radar. Knowing if you're at risk could help you catch it early or even prevent you from getting it entirely.
Vaginal cancer can become life-threatening if it isn't treated right away. Even though only 3,000 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year in the United States, anyone can get it—even if they think they're relatively healthy.
Types of vaginal cancer
There are two main types of vaginal cancer: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in the glandular cells that line the vagina. Glandular cells are responsible for making fluids and mucus, and if they become cancerous, the cancer can eventually spread to the lungs or lymph nodes.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of vaginal cancer and happens when the flat cells that line the vaginal wall become cancerous. Sometimes squamous cell carcinoma can spread to the liver or lungs if it's left untreated.
If women are aware of the different types of vaginal cancer and what their risk factors are, they might be able to avoid getting sick or get early treatment if they do receive a diagnosis.
Top risk factors
One of the best things you can do for your health is to know if you're at risk. Here are the top risk factors that give people an increased chance of getting vaginal cancer:
Age: Older women have a higher risk of getting vaginal cancer than younger women. According to Cancer.net, most women who get vaginal cancer are between the ages of 50 and 70.
Cervical cancer: Women who have cervical cancer are more likely to get vaginal squamous cell cancer.
Consuming alcohol: Drinking excessively may increase a woman's chance of getting vaginal cancer. According to Cancer.org, more cases of vaginal cancer are found among alcoholic women than nonalcoholic women.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES): DES is a drug that used to be prescribed to pregnant women to help prevent miscarriages. Studies have shown that women who took DES while pregnant gave their daughters an increased risk of getting adenocarcinoma. Women whose mothers didn't take DES while pregnant were less likely to get adenocarcinoma.
Smoking cigarettes. According to Cancer.org, smoking can double the odds of a woman getting vaginal cancer.
Vaginal adenosis: Vaginal adenosis is an abnormality in the vagina in which some of the vagina is lined by glandular cells instead of flat squamous cells. Research suggests that 95 percent of cases of vaginal clear cell adenocarcinoma are associated with vaginal adenosis.
Vaginal cancer symptoms
If you fall into any of the above categories and start to have symptoms of vaginal cancer, it's best to call your doctor right away.
The main symptoms of vaginal cancer to look out for include:
- Vaginal bleeding that happens outside of your period
- Painful intercourse
- Pelvic pain
- Painful urination
- A lump in the vagina
What to do if you're at risk
If you think you're at risk of getting vaginal cancer, the best thing you can do is talk with your doctor. They may recommend you get an HPV vaccine because this has been proven to prevent strains of HPV that cause vaginal cancer. They might also recommend certain lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and reducing your alcohol consumption. The only way to know for sure what to do is to make an appointment with your primary care physician or OB-GYN.
In many cases, doctors can cure vaginal cancer if it's detected in its earliest stages. The five-year survival rate for women with stage I and II vaginal cancer is about 66 percent. The five-year survival rate for women with vaginal cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is 21 to 55 percent.
That's why it's important to see a doctor if you're at risk of getting vaginal cancer and/or have symptoms of vaginal cancer.