What is Vulvar Cancer?

By  , Expert Content
Jan 11, 2012

What is Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is a rare type of cancer in women that occurs in a woman's external genitalia. The parts of a female external genital that form the vulva include the inner and outer lips of the vagina, the clitoris (sensitive tissue between the lips) and the opening of the vagina and its glands. There are many types of vulvar cancer, but the most common vulvar tumour is the squamous cell carcinomas (about 90%).

Vulvar cancer usually starts as a lump or sore on the vulva, which is painful and itchy. The cancer can occur at any age, but it is most often diagnosed in older women. In most cases, the cancer starts on the outer vaginal lips and less often on the inner vaginal lips or the clitoris.

The cancer grows slowly over a period of years. In most cases, the cancer develops slowly from a precancerous condition called dysplasia (abnormal cell changes). This precancerous stage is known as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) or dysplasia. It usually takes years for precancerous changes (VIN) to progress to vulvar cancer. As the VIN can develop into vulvar cancer, treatment of this condition is very important.

Many cases of vulvar cancer are caused by infection with the virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). The infection is transmitted by having sexual contact with someone who has the infection. Apart from HPV infection, other risk factors for vulvar cancer include:

  • Older age.
  • Having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
  • Having precancerous conditions of the vulva (vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia).
  • Having a skin condition, which affects the vulva such as lichen sclerosus (it causes the vulvar skin to become thin and itchy).

Most cases of vulvar cancer in the early stages do not have any symptoms. Consult your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • A lump or growth in the vulva.
  • Persistent itching in the vulvar area that does not go away.
  • Bleeding or spotting not related to menstruation (periods).
  • Tenderness or pain in the vulvar area.

Treatment for vulvar cancer is influenced by several factors such as the stage of cancer, your overall health and the extent of spread of disease. Treatment options for vulvar cancer include laser therapy, surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. In the earlier stages, less extensive surgery is needed. In cases with advanced cancer, the entire vulva may be surgically removed. Your doctor will discuss with you and decide on the best treatment for you.



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