Vulvar cancer is a rare form of cancer that affects the external female genitalia, including the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening. It is most commonly diagnosed in women over the age of 50. While vulvar cancer is not as well-known as other forms of cancer, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms, as early detection is key to successful treatment.
How Does Vulvar Cancer Look Like?
Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that affects the external female genitalia, including the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and vaginal opening. The appearance of vulvar cancer can vary depending on the stage and type of cancer, but some common characteristics are:
Changes in the color and texture of the skin: The affected area may appear red, white, or darker than the surrounding skin. The skin may also become thickened or rough.
Lump or sore: A lump or sore that doesn’t heal or that returns may be a sign of vulvar cancer. The lump or sore may be itchy or painful.
Bleeding: Vulvar cancer may cause bleeding that is not related to menstruation. The bleeding may be light or heavy and may occur after sexual intercourse or during urination.
Ulceration: Advanced vulvar cancer can lead to the formation of ulcers on the vulva. These ulcers may be painful and may bleed.
Skin changes: Vulvar cancer can cause the skin to become thinner and more easily irritated. The affected area may feel sensitive or raw.
Enlarged lymph nodes: In some cases, vulvar cancer may spread to nearby lymph nodes, causing them to become enlarged. This can be felt as a lump in the groin area.
What is Vulvar Cancer?
Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that affects the external female genitalia, including the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and vaginal opening. It occurs when abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably in the vulva, leading to the formation of a cancerous tumor.
Is Vulvar Cancer Deadly?
Vulvar cancer can be a serious condition and in some cases, it can be deadly if not detected and treated early. However, the prognosis for vulvar cancer depends on several factors, including the stage and type of cancer, the size and location of the tumor, and the person’s overall health.
According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for vulvar cancer ranges from approximately 85% for early-stage cancer to around 20% for advanced-stage cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body. This means that 85% of people with early-stage vulvar cancer are expected to live at least 5 years after diagnosis, while only 20% of people with advanced-stage cancer are expected to survive that long.
What Causes Vulvar Cancer?
The cause of vulvar cancer is not fully understood, but several risk factors have been identified that can increase the likelihood of developing this type of cancer. These risk factors include:
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Certain types of HPV can increase the risk of developing vulvar cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that can also cause cervical cancer and other types of cancer.
Age: The risk of vulvar cancer increases with age, with most cases occurring in women over 50 years old.
Smoking: Tobacco use can increase the risk of vulvar cancer, as well as other types of cancer.
Immune system problems: Women with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or who have received an organ transplant, may be at higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.
Chronic skin conditions: Women with chronic skin conditions affecting the vulva, such as lichen sclerosus or squamous hyperplasia, may be at higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.
Previous history of cervical or vaginal cancer: Women who have had cervical or vaginal cancer in the past may be at higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.
Who can get Vulvar Cancer?
Vulvar cancer can affect women of any age, but it is more commonly diagnosed in women over the age of 50. However, it is possible for younger women to develop vulvar cancer as well.
You are more likely to develop vulvar cancer if you:
- Have VIN (vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia)
- Have infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Have a history of genital warts
- Have a vulvar skin problem, such as lichen sclerosus.
Other potential risk factors are as follows:
- Having a large number of sexual partners.
- Having a history of irregular Pap testing (Pap smears).
- Having a medical issue that causes your immune system to weaken.
- Being a cigarette smoker.
Vulvar cancer is most commonly found in women aged 65 to 74. Vulvar cancer, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly common in younger women.
How Common is Vulvar Cancer?
Vulvar cancer is rare. Compared with other types of cancer, it ranks 28th in terms of the most common types of cancer.
About 90% vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas and develop on the surface of the vulva. About 5% of vulvar cancers are melanomas. Melanomas develop rapidly and have a high risk of spreading to other areas of the body. They are more likely to affect younger women than older women. The remaining 5% are other rare types of vulvar cancer.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer?
- The symptoms of vulvar cancer can vary, but they typically include:
- Pain, or
- Tenderness in the vulva, as well as changes in the skin color or texture.
Women may also notice a lump or mass in the vulva or experience bleeding or discharge that is not associated with their menstrual cycle. In some cases, vulvar cancer may not cause any noticeable symptoms, which is why it is important to have regular gynecological exams.
How is Vulvar Cancer Diagnosed?
Vulvar cancer is typically diagnosed through a combination of physical exams, medical history review, and diagnostic tests. Here are some of the common methods used to diagnose vulvar cancer:
Pelvic exam: A healthcare provider will examine the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum to check for any abnormalities or signs of cancer.
Biopsy: If a suspicious area is found during the pelvic exam, a small tissue sample may be taken from the area to be analyzed under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
Colposcopy: This is a procedure that uses a special microscope called a colposcope to examine the vulva, vagina, and cervix for any abnormalities.
Imaging tests: Imaging tests, such as CT scans or MRI, may be used to determine the extent of the cancer and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Lymph node biopsy: If cancer is found, lymph nodes in the groin area may be biopsied to check for any spread of cancer cells.
If vulvar cancer is diagnosed, additional tests may be needed to determine the stage of the cancer and the best treatment plan. It’s important to work closely with a healthcare provider who specializes in treating vulvar cancer to determine the most appropriate diagnostic and treatment options for your individual case.
Are There different Types of Vulvar Cancer?
Make an appointment with your health care physician or gynecologist if you have any persistent symptoms that concern you.