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.