The vulva is the outer part of the female genitals that includes the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening. There are different type of cancer that can occur in this area including:
- Squamous cell carcinoma—cancers of the skin cells, most common type of vulvar cancer
- Adenocarcinoma—from fluid producing glands, less common
Cancerous (malignant) tumors can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body, in this case vulvar cells, divide without control or order. Eventually these cells can develop into a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
A healthy cell changes into a cancerous cell because of changes in the DNA. The exact reason the change happens is not clear but it is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
This condition is more common in women 65 to 75 years of age.
Factors that may increase your chance of vulvar cancer include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia
- Cervical precancer or cervical cancer
- A weakened immune system due to conditions such as HIV
- Lichen sclerosus
- Melanoma or atypical moles
- Chronic vulvar irritation or skin condition
Symptoms may include:
- Persistent itching, burning, or bleeding of the vulva
- Changes in the color of the skin of the vulva
- Skin changes, such as a rash, mole, or warts
- Sores, scales, lumps, or ulcers on the vulva
- Pelvic pain, especially during urination or sex
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. This will include a pelvic exam of your uterus, ovaries, cervix, and vagina. Your doctor may order blood tests.
A biopsy, removal of a piece of suspicious tissue for testing, will be done. The sample will confirm a cancer diagnosis. A Pap test may also be done to look for signs of cancer in nearby tissue.
Imaging studies, such as x-rays or CAT scans may be done to look for spreading of the tumor.
The physical exam combined with all of your test results will help to determine the stage of cancer you have. Staging is used to guide your treatment plan. Like other cancers, vulvar cancer is staged from 0-IV.
- Stage 0 is a cancer only on the surface of the skin
- Stage 1 is in the vulva and tissue between rectum and vagina
- Stage 2 is growth that has spread to anal tissue or vagina
- Stage 3 is growth that has spread to nearby tissue and is present in the lymph node
- Stage 4 is increased growth to nearby tissue and lymph nodes, may spread to other areas of the body
The biopsy will determine the grade (1-4) and type of your tumor. These can predict how aggressive a tumor may be and help to determine the treatment.
You and your doctor will determine which treatment or combinations of treatments work best for you, depending on the location, type, stage and grade of your tumor. Cancer treatment often includes a combination of the following treatments:
To help reduce your chance of getting vulvar cancer:
- Take steps to prevent HPV infection. This may include practicing safe sex and talking to your doctor about the HPV vaccine.
- If you smoke or use tobacco products, talk to your doctor about ways to quit.