Vulvar Cancer

The external part of a woman’s genitals is called the vulva. Cancer in this area is uncommon, but when it occurs, it is most often seen on the outer vaginal lips. Vulvar cancer is slow growing and may develop over several years.  

Causes of Vulvar Cancer

No single cause of vulvar cancer has been identified, but there are some risk factors that may contribute to its development.

  • Age – vulvar cancer is seen more often in older women
  • History of HPV infection

Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer

There are no signs or symptoms during early development of vulvar cancer. As tumors enlarge, the following symptoms may be noticed

  • Lump in the external genitals
  • Persistent itching around the genitals
  • Abnormal bleeding not related to menstruation
  • Tenderness in the genitals

Diagnosing Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is often initially diagnosed at a regular gynecological exam, based on history and physical exam. If vulvar cancer is suspected, diagnosis can be made quite readily following a biopsy where tissue is removed at the site of the suspected cancer and examined by a pathologist.

Treating Vulvar Cancer

The treatment options for vulvar cancer depend on the location and size of the cancer cells and whether the cancer has spread to other areas.

Options for treatment include:

  • Laser therapy – directing a laser beam at the cancer cells to kill them
  • Wide local excision – surgical removal of cancerous tissue and some surrounding normal tissue
  • Radical local excision – removal cancerous tissue and a larger amount of surrounding normal tissue including lymph nodes
  • Vulvectomy – removal of all or part of the vulva and possibly surrounding tissue and lymph nodes
  • Pelvic exenteration – removal of the lower colon, rectum, and bladder along with the cervix, vagina, ovaries, and lymph nodes for advanced cancer

Surgical treatment of vulvar cancer will often be accompanied by radiation therapy or chemotherapy. This is called adjuvant therapy and is designed to kill any cancer cells left behind after surgery and to prevent recurrence of the cancer.

Radiation treatments

Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer may use externally applied X-ray or other radiation directed at the cancer cells to kill them. In some cases, radiation may be applied directly into a tumor using radioactive needles or by implanting small radioactive seeds.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs can be taken by mouth or injected into the blood stream, if the vulvar cancer has spread to other organs in the body. For some vulvar cancer lesions, a chemotherapy agent can be applied locally in cream or lotion form.