What Is It?
Vulvar cancer occurs in the vulva, the external genital area of a woman’s reproductive system. Vulvar cancer can affect any part of the vulva, including the labia, the mons pubis (the skin and tissue that cover the pubic bone), the clitoris, or the vaginal or urethral openings. Most commonly, it affects the inner edges of the labia majora or labia minora.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 90 percent of vulvar cancers are squamous-cell carcinomas. This type of cancer originates in the squamous cells, the primary type of cells that make up the skin. Squamous-cell cancer usually develops slowly over many years. The condition commonly is preceded by the development of abnormal cells in the surface layer of the skin, called the epithelium. Development of abnormal cells on the surface layer of the skin is called vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia.
The second most common form of cancer of the vulva is melanoma. The American Cancer Society estimates that melanoma accounts for about 4 percent of vulvar cancers and usually occurs on the labia minora or the clitoris. More uncommon forms of vulvar cancer include Bartholin gland adenocarcinoma and Paget’s disease. Less than 2 percent of vulvar cancers are sarcomas, cancer of the connective tissue underlying the skin. Sarcomas can occur at any age.
According to the American Cancer Society, vulvar cancer is uncommon, accounting for approximately 4 percent of cancers of the female reproductive system and 0.6 percent of all cancers in women. Seventy-five percent of women who have vulvar cancer are over 50 years old, and two-thirds of women are older than 70 when first diagnosed. However, more cases are occurring in younger women; 15 percent of new cases appear in women under 40 years of age.
Common symptoms of vulvar cancer and vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia include:
- Persistent itching or burning pain anywhere on the vulva
- A red, pink, or white lump with a wartlike or raw surface
- A white and rough area on the vulva
- Painful urination or bleeding
- A discharge not associated with your period
- An ulcer that lasts more than a month
Signs of vulvar melanoma may include a black or brown raised area or a change in the size, shape or color of a pre-existing mole.
Signs of a Bartholin’s gland adenocarcinoma include a lump at the opening to the vagina. A lump can also be the more common benign cyst, but you should have an evaluation to make sure it is not cancerous. A sore, red, scaly area of the vulva can signal Paget’s disease.
Keep in mind that some signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer also can occur with other, noncancerous conditions, such as infection or trauma.
The disease usually is diagnosed with a biopsy. In this procedure, a small sample of tissue is removed and examined by a pathologist under a microscope to identify cancer cells or precancerous cells. Toluidine blue dye may be applied on the vulva to help determine where the sample should be taken for a biopsy. This dye causes skin with potentially cancerous changes to turn blue.
An instrument called a colposcope, which has magnifying lenses, may be used to select the biopsy site. Before using the colposcope, the skin is treated with a dilute solution of acetic acid that causes suspicious-looking skin to turn white. This white coloration is temporary and can best be seen through the colposcope.
If the doctor suspects abnormalities in different areas of the vulva, more than one biopsy may be required. In excisional biopsy, small areas of abnormality may be completely removed. In punch biopsy, a very small cylinder of skin is removed and used to sample larger areas of abnormality. The biopsy specimen is sent to a pathology lab for evaluation and diagnosis.
If a biopsy detects cancer, additional tests also may be performed to determine if it has spread beyond the vulva. These may include:
- Cystoscopy — An exam with a lighted tube to check the inside surface of the bladder
- Proctoscopy — An exam of the rectum using a lighted tube
- Pelvic examination — A more thorough pelvic examination under anesthesia
- Chest X-ray — To check for any spread to the lungs
- Computed tomography (CT) scan — An imaging method that uses a rotating X-ray beam and a computer to create a detailed view of internal organs
These tests can help predict whether the vulvar cancer has spread to nearby pelvic organs or to more distant parts of the body.
Vulvar cancer will continue to grow until it is treated.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of vulvar cancer. You can also take steps to identify and treat precancerous conditions before they turn into invasive cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, human papilloma virus (HPV) infection is found in 20 percent to 50 percent of invasive vulvar cancers. Certain types of human papilloma virus are transmitted during sexual contact. You can lower your risk of HPV by:
- Using latex condoms (the female condom protects a broader area of the lower genital tract and vulva compared with the male condom)
- Minimizing your number of sexual partners
- Avoiding sexual relations with someone who has had many sexual partners
The risk of vulvar cancer is also lower if you do not have intercourse at an early age.
Early detection and treatment of precancerous conditions helps prevent many cases of invasive squamous-cell vulvar cancer. Early identification of precancerous and cancerous conditions is possible with an annual examination of your reproductive system and a thorough evaluation of any persistent vulvar rashes, moles, lumps or other abnormalities.
Your vulva normally is examined at the same time you have a Pap test and pelvic examination. In general, doctors recommend that women start to have regular Pap tests when they become sexually active or by the age of 21 at the latest. After three negative Pap tests at least one year apart, your doctor may perform the test every two to three years, depending on your age and whether you have certain risks of developing cervical cancer. All women older than 40 should continue to have an annual pelvic examination.
Removing atypical or “funny-looking” moles found on the vulva will help prevent some vulvar melanomas. Quitting smoking and avoiding the use of tobacco can reduce the risk of developing many cancerous conditions of the body, including vulvar cancer and precancerous changes in the vulva.
Treatment for vulvar cancer depends upon the type of cancer, its stage at diagnosis, and its location on the vulva. Treatment also will be influenced by patient’s age and overall health, and the importance of maintaining sexual function balanced against the need to remove all the cancer. The main forms of treatment include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Surgery is the most common treatment for vulvar cancer. It can take many forms, depending upon how much tissue must be removed. The surgeon will try to remove all the cancer cells while preserving as much sexual function as possible. The following procedures are listed in order of the least to most aggressive tissue removal.
- Laser surgery burns off the layer of abnormal cells. It is used for treating vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, but not invasive cancer.
- Excision (sometimes called wide local excision) removes the cancer and a small portion of surrounding normal cells.
- Vulvectomy may involve removing part or all of the vulva and its underlying tissue. A simple vulvectomy removes only the vulva. A partial, radical vulvectomy involves the removal of a portion of the vulva and the underlying tissue. A complete vulvectomy removes the entire vulva and the tissue underneath it, including the clitoris. The effects on sexual function depend upon the extent of the vulvectomy.
- Pelvic exenteration is an extensive surgery that includes vulvectomy, the removal of the pelvic lymph nodes, and removal of one or more of the following: vagina, rectum, lower colon, bladder, uterus and cervix.
Radiation can be administered before or after surgery. If cancer has spread to the lymph glands, external-beam radiation therapy may be directed at the lymph nodes after surgery. This type of therapy carefully targets a beam of radiation at the cancer. If tumor cells are found at the edges of the tissue that was removed, radiation therapy directed at these areas may be recommended after surgery. If the cancer affects a large area, radiation may be used before the surgery to reduce its size.
The use of chemotherapy (anticancer drugs) for vulvar cancer still is being investigated. If vulvar cancer is identified early before it starts to spread and involves a small area, an anticancer drug called fluorouracil (5-FU) can be applied directly to the skin, and might eliminate the need for surgery. Research is being done on a new method of treatment for severe cases, in which the cancer has spread to other tissues, organs and lymph nodes nearby. In this treatment, chemotherapy drugs are given intravenously (into a vein) along with radiation therapy before surgery.
When To Call A Professional
The importance of self-examination cannot be overemphasized. If you note any persistent rash, persistent itching or pain of the vulva, any changes in the skin of the vulva or abnormal growths, bumps or ulcers, make an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation. Itchiness, abdominal pain or fever can signal infection instead of cancer. You should see your health-care provider the same day if you have any abdominal pain with fever.
If vulvar cancer is detected early, chances of a cure are excellent. For cancers in which the lymph nodes are not affected, 90 percent of people survive five years or more. When vulvar cancer has invaded the lymph nodes, then the five-year survival rate drops to 30 percent to 55 percent. The prognosis depends upon the number of lymph nodes involved.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.