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Primary vaginal cancer – or cancer that begins in the vagina – is not common. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that only one in every 1,100 women will develop vaginal cancer in her lifetime. It is more likely that the cancer will originate in a nearby organ, such as the bladder, uterus or cervix, and spread to the vagina.

Are there risk factors for vaginal cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase the chance of developing a certain condition. Some established risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Age. Vaginal cancer of the squamous cells (the most common type) usually affects older women. About half of all cases develop in women who are 70 or older.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Many women with vaginal cancer also have HPV, and HPV has been linked to a precancerous condition called vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN).
  • Cervical cancer. A history of cervical cancer may increase the risk of vaginal cancer.
  • Tobacco use. Smoking can increase the risk of many cancers, including vaginal cancer.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES). Women whose mothers took DES – a hormone drug that was prescribed to many pregnant women to prevent miscarriage from 1940 to 1971 – may have a slightly greater risk of vaginal cancer.

Most women with these risk factors will never develop vaginal cancer. If you are at an increased risk, you should just be especially mindful of changes in your body and potential symptoms. It is also possible to develop vaginal cancer without having any known risk factors.

What are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?

Vaginal cancer usually doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms in its early stages. As the disease progresses and becomes more invasive, some women may experience:

  • Painful sex, sometimes followed by bleeding
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • A noticeable lump in the vagina
  • Pelvic or lower back pain
  • Pain while urinating
  • Constipation
  • Swelling in the legs

These symptoms are most often caused by infections and other noncancerous conditions. Nevertheless, it’s important to promptly speak with your physician if you notice any new or unusual symptoms. As with most other cancers, early detection is key to achieving the best possible outcome and quality of life.

Moffitt Cancer Center offers comprehensive vaginal cancer diagnostics, treatment and supportive care from a multispecialty team in our gynecologic clinic. To schedule an appointment at Moffitt, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.