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Vulvar Cancer

Illustration of the anatomy of the female pelvic area
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What is the vulva?

The vulva is the external portion of the female genital organs. It includes:

  • Labia majora. Two large, fleshy lips, or folds of skin.
  • Labia minora. Small lips that lie inside the labia majora and surround the openings to the urethra and vagina.
  • Vestibule. Space where the vagina opens.
  • Prepuce. A fold of skin formed by the labia minora that covers the clitoris.
  • Clitoris. A small protrusion of nerve tissue sensitive to stimulation.
  • Fourchette. Area beneath the vaginal opening where the labia minora meet.
  • Perineum. Area between the vagina and the anus.
  • Anus. Opening at the end of the anal canal.
  • Urethra. Connecting tube to the bladder.

What is vulvar cancer?

Vulvar cancer can occur on any part of the external organs, but most often affects the labia majora or labia minora. According to the American Cancer Society, about 4,490 cases of cancer of the vulva will be diagnosed in the US in 2012. 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. Most vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Melanoma is another common type of vulvar cancer, usually found in the labia minora or clitoris. Other types of vulvar cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Paget disease
  • Sarcomas
  • Basal cell carcinoma
What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, such as smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. Different diseases, including cancers, have different risk factors.

Although these factors can increase a person's risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease. Some people with one or more risk factors never develop cancer, while others develop cancer and have no known risk factors.

But, knowing your risk factors to any disease can help to guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.

What are risk factors for vulvar cancer?

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

  • Age. Of the women who develop vulvar cancer, over 80 percent are over age 50, and half are over age 70.
  • Infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • HIV infection
  • Lichen sclerosus. This can cause the vulval skin to become very itchy and may slightly increase the possibility of vulvar cancer.
  • Melanoma or atypical moles on nonvulvar skin. A family history of melanoma and dysplastic nevi anywhere on the body may increase the risk of vulvar cancer.
  • 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 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
  • An open sore that lasts for more than a month
  • Skin of the vulva looks white and feels rough

The symptoms of vulvar cancer may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult a doctor for diagnosis.

How can vulvar cancer be prevented?

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
  • Get vaccinated against HPV
  • Have routine Pap tests and pelvic examinations
  • Routinely check entire body for irregular growth of moles and check your vulva regularly for any signs of vulvar cancer

How is vulvar cancer diagnosed?

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

Treatment for vulvar cancer

Specific treatment for vulvar cancer will be determined by your doctor(s) based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment for cancer of the vulva may include:

  • Surgery, including:
    • Laser surgery. Use of a powerful beam of light, which can be directed to specific parts of the body without making a large incision (cut), to destroy abnormal cells.
    • Excision. The cancer cells and a margin of normal tisue around the cancer is removed
    • Vulvectomy. Surgical removal of part of all of the tissues of the vulva.
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

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