Risk Factors for Gynecologic Cancers
The risk of gynecologic cancers varies depending on the cancer type, with uterine and ovarian cancer more common than other types. The exact causes of gynecologic cancers are not known, but understanding the risk factors may help you take preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of developing a disease.
  • Age: Most cases of gynecological cancer are found in women who are middle-aged or older. Two-thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 55 or older.
  • Childbearing status: Women who have never had a pregnancy are at increased risk of ovarian cancer. Scientists believe that the high number of lifetime ovulations in women who don’t have children is what increases risk. However, taking oral contraceptives at some point during your life, which reduces your number of lifetime ovulations, may decrease risk of ovarian cancer. Breast-feeding can also reduce the risk.
  • Obesity: Being overweight increases your risk of uterine and ovarian cancers.
  • Smoking: Smoking may weaken the cells of the cervix, vulva and vagina, increasing the likelihood that abnormal cells will advance to cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, or vaginal cancer.
  • Family history of gynecologic cancer or other cancers: If your mother, sister or daughter has been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, you are at increased risk. Your risk is also increased if you have a family history of other cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer and rectal cancer.
  • Inherited gene mutations: Women with mutations in certain genes or whose families have genetic syndromes that increase risk of several types of cancer are at increased risk for gynecologic cancers. Mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase the risk of ovarian cancer. A syndrome known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome) increases the risk of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer.
Previous treatments or conditions
  • Radiation therapy: Women who have had radiation to the pelvic area are at a higher risk of developing a gynecologic cancer.
  • Hormone therapy: Menopause hormone therapy using both estrogen and progesterone is associated with an increased risk. Exposure in the womb to diethylstilbestrol (DES). This synthetic estrogen was prescribed to pregnant women until 1971 to relieve complications of pregnancy. It is now known that offspring of women who took this drug are at increased risk of cervical cancer and vaginal cancer.
  • Diabetes: Women with diabetes have a higher risk of developing uterine cancer. HIV or another condition that weakens the immune system: These conditions increase the risk of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
  • HPV infection: Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase the risk of cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. HPV often does not cause any symptoms and infects at least half of all sexually active people at some point in their lives. Not every woman who gets HPV will develop gynecological cancer.
  • History of abnormal Pap smears: Women who have had abnormal Pap smears (pre-cancerous conditions) have increased risk of gynecologic cancers.
  • Tamoxifen: Taking this drug, often used to prevent breast cancer in women at high risk for that disease, slightly increases risk of uterine cancer.