Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Vaginal Cancer

The exact cause of vaginal cancer is unknown, but certain factors can increase your risk of developing this cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Age: Most vaginal cancer diagnoses occur in women who are age 60 or older.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that increases your risk of vaginal cancer. Most women with HPV don’t have further problems as their immune system quickly fights the virus.
  • Smoking: Your risk of developing vaginal cancer increases if you smoke cigarettes.
  • Cervical cancer: A previous diagnosis of cervical cancer can increase your risk for developing vaginal cancer.
  • Vaginal adenosis: In some cases, your vagina may grow cells that look more like those found in your uterus. This is called vaginal adenosis, and increases your risk of developing vaginal cancer. Vaginal adenosis occurs in almost all women who were exposed to the medication diethylstilbestrol (DES) as a baby in the womb.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Because this virus harms your immune system, it makes women more likely to get and remain infected with HPV.


When your symptoms suggest vaginal cancer, your physician will assess your symptoms with diagnostic testing and procedures, including:

  • A detailed medical history
  • A thorough physical exam
  • Pelvic examination of your vagina, uterus ovaries, bladder and rectum, including a Pap test
  • Colposcopy: Procedure in which a special magnifying scope is used to examine your cervix and vagina
  • Biopsy: Removal of a sample of tissue, to see if the tissue contains cancer cells

If you are diagnosed with vaginal cancer, Northwestern Medicine is home to the very latest treatment options delivered by skilled cancer specialists. We take a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosing and treating the disease and our surgical results for treating cancer are among the best anywhere. Together, we will develop a treatment plan, tailored to your specific condition, that offers the help and hope you need.