Do We Know What Causes Vaginal Cancer?

The exact cause of most vaginal cancers is not known. But scientists have found that it is associated with a number of other conditions described in What are the risk factors for vaginal cancer? Research is now being done to learn more about how these risk factors cause cells of the vagina to become cancerous.

Research has shown that normal cells make substances called tumor suppressor gene products to keep from growing too rapidly and becoming cancers. High-risk HPV (human papillomavirus) types (like 16 and 18) produce 2 proteins (E6 and E7) that can interfere with the functioning of known tumor suppressor gene products.

As mentioned in the section on risk factors, women exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) as a fetus (that is, their mothers took DES during pregnancy) are at increased risk for developing clear cell carcinoma. DES also increases the likelihood of vaginal adenosis (gland-type cells in the vaginal lining rather than the usual squamous cells). Most women with vaginal adenosis never develop vaginal clear cell carcinoma. However, those with a rare type of adenosis (called atypical tuboendometrial adenosis) do have an increased risk of developing this cancer.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: June 17, 2014 Last Revised: October 25, 2017

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