Vulvar Cancer: Risk Factors

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with 1 or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthy foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, your health care provider may check your weight or help you lose weight.

Who is at risk for vulvar cancer?

There are many risk factors for vulvar cancer.

Age

Most women diagnosed with this cancer are over 50 years old. More than half are over 70 years old.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

Some types of HPV are considered high risk and have been linked to oral, anal, and genital cancers, including vulvar cancer. Infection with one of these high-risk types of HPV increases the risk of vulvar cancer. In fact, it’s actually linked to most vulvar cancers.

Tobacco use

Smoking increases your risk for a number of cancers, including vulvar cancer. If you smoke and also have a history of HPV infection, your risk is even greater.

Weakened immune system

Steroid medicines and medicines used after organ transplant suppress your immune system. So do treatments for other types of cancer and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Having a weakened immune system makes it harder to clear an HPV infection and keep damaged cells under control. This can lead to cancer.

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) or dysplasia

This precancerous condition causes a change in the cells on the surface of the vulva's lining. It may or may not be visible. But having it may increase your risk for the most common type of vulvar cancer, squamous cell carcinoma.

Lichen sclerosus

This condition increases your risk of vulvar cancer. It makes the skin on your vulva itchy, thin, and pale in color.

History of melanoma

If you or someone in your family has had melanoma or atypical moles, you have a higher risk of getting a melanoma of the vulva.

History of other genital cancers

Women with cervical cancer have a higher risk of vulvar cancer. The likely reason for this is the role of HPV infection in both of these cancers.

What are your risk factors?

Unlike other some cancers in women, such as breast or ovarian cancer, there is no hereditary risk for vulvar cancer. Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for vulvar cancer and what you can do about them.