Vulvar Cancer

Understand the symptoms and treatment options for cancer of the vulva.

Vulvar cancer, sometimes called vulva cancer, is a rare disease. It accounts for just 4 percent of all women’s reproductive cancers. Because it’s so rare, specialized diagnostic testing and treatment is vital.

We review each vulvar cancer patient's case as a team at our weekly internal tumor board meetings. This gives us a chance to gather oncologists, pathologists, nurses, and genetic counselors in the same room to determine your most effective treatment options together.

Our team will answer all of your questions and provide the education and support you need before, during, and after treatment.

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What is vulvar cancer?

This type of cancer forms in a woman's vulva, which are the external genitalia. It most often affects the outer vaginal lips, but also can affect the inner vaginal lips, clitoris, or vaginal glands.

Vulvar cancer usually forms slowly over a number of years. Abnormal cells can grow on the surface of the vulvar skin for a long time. This precancerous condition is called vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). Because it is possible for VIN to become vulvar cancer, it’s important to get treatment as soon as it’s detected.

Symptoms of vulvar cancer

As with most other female cancers, vulvar cancer symptoms are similar to other health problems. Symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding not related to your menstrual period
  • Changes to the skin of the vulva, including color changes
  • Itching in the vulvar area that doesn’t go away
  • Lumps or growths on the vulva that may look like warts or ulcers
  • Tenderness in the vulvar area

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. The doctor can determine if your symptoms are caused by vulvar cancer or a different abdominal issue or gynecological condition.

Risk factors for vulvar cancer

Many vulvar cancer patients do not have risk factors that point specifically to vulvar cancer. That said, these factors may put you at increased risk for developing cancer:

  • Having vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Having a history of abnormal pap tests (Pap smears)
  • Having a history of genital warts
  • Having first sexual intercourse at a young age
  • Having many sexual partners

If you have any of these risk factors, don’t be embarrassed to bring them up with your doctor. Vulvar cancer -- like all cancers -- is most responsive to treatment when it’s detected early.

Treatment for vulvar cancer

If you have vulvar cancer, it’s important that your doctor determine its stage. This will direct the women’s cancer team toward the most effective, safest treatment options.

The stages of vulvar cancer are:

  • Stage I: Cancer is only in the vulva or on the perineum (the space between the vagina and anus).
  • Stage II: Cancer has grown outside the vulva and perineum to the lower vagina or urethra.
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread farther up the vagina or urethra, into the anus, or has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to cause open sores, spread to the lymph nodes, and possibly spread to pelvic organs or distant organs.

The main treatment for vulvar cancer is surgery. Vulvectomy is the standard procedure in which we remove the tumor from the vulvar area. We opt for the least invasive techniques that allow for the quickest, most pain-free recovery.

Another common surgery for vulva cancer is sentinel lymph node treatment. In this procedure, we remove the lymph node that is most likely to contain cancer cells. We also may remove the lymph nodes in the groin area, depending on the stage of your cancer. This procedure often is used for breast cancer treatment.

The doctor also may recommend radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of both along with surgery. This helps ensure that we destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery.

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