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Vulvar Cancer

What is vulvar cancer?

Vulvar cancer is a malignancy that can occur on any part of the external organs, but most often affects the labia majora or labia minora. Cancer of the vulva is a rare disease, which accounts for 0.6 percent of all cancers in women, and may form slowly over many years. Nearly 90 percent of vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Melanoma is the second most common type of vulvar cancer, usually found in the labia minora or clitoris. Other types of vulvar cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Paget's disease
  • Sarcomas
  • Verrucous carcinoma
  • Basal cell carcinoma

What are the risk factors associated with vulvar cancer?

The following have been suggested as risk factors for vulvar cancer:

  • Age: Of the women who develop vulvar cancer, almost 85 percent are over age 50, and half are over age 70
  • Chronic vulvar inflammation
  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
  • Lichen sclerosus: Can cause the vulval skin to become very itchy and may slightly increase the possibility of vulvar cancer
  • Melanoma or atypical moles on non-vulvar skin: A family history of melanoma and dysplastic nevi anywhere on the body may increase the risk of vulvar cancer
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN): There is an increased risk for vulvar cancer in women with VIN, although most cases do not progress to cancer
  • Other genital cancers
  • Smoking

What causes vulvar cancer?

The cause of vulvar cancer is not known at this time, however, certain risk factors are suspected as contributors to the development of the disease. Suggestions for prevention include:

  • Avoid known risk factors when possible.
  • Delay onset of sexual activity.
  • Use condoms.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Have regular physical checkups.
  • Have routine Pap tests and pelvic examinations.
  • Routinely check entire body for irregular growth of moles.

What are the symptoms of vulvar cancer?

The following are the most common symptoms of vulvar cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Constant itching
  • Changes in the color and the way the vulva looks
  • Bleeding or discharge not related to menstruation
  • Severe burning/itching or pain
  • Skin of the vulva looks white and feels rough

How is vulvar cancer diagnosed?

Vulvar cancer is diagnosed by biopsy, removing a section of tissue for examination in a laboratory by a pathologist.

How is vulvar cancer treated?

Treatment for patients with cancer of the vulva may include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Surgical treatment may include:

  • Laser surgery - use of a powerful beam of light, which can be directed to specific parts of the body without making a large incision, to destroy abnormal cells
  • Excision - the cancer cells and a margin of normal appearing skin around the cancer is removed
  • Vulvectomy - surgical removal of part of all of the tissues of the vulva