Vulvar Cancer

by Carol Gomes

Vulvar cancer is a rare type of cancer occurring on the external female genital organs including opening of the vagina, vulva and the clitoris. Vulvar cancer develops slowly over a period of time in women between the ages of 55-80 years, but can also occur in women less than 40.

The exact causes for the development of the cancer of the vulva are unknown. However, being older, smoking, defect or mutation in the p53 tumor suppressor gene and human papillomavirus (HPV a sexually transmitted infection) are included in the risk factors. Most of the vulvar cancers are a type of skin cancer (squamous cell carcinomas) that forms a precancerous cell growth on the vulvar skin leading to dysplasia or vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). However not all cases of VIN proceed for vulvar cancer.

To detect and treat the cancer at an early stage, regular gynecologic exams are very important.

The chances of vulvar cancer showing early symptoms are less, but for immediate treatment, consult a specialist as soon as you experience the following signs and symptoms.

  1. Vaginal itching that doesn’t improve.
  2. Skin change in terms of color, size or texture.
  3. A lump or an ulcer on the vulva that doesn’t heal soon.
  4. Pain, burning sensation and tenderness.
  5. Bleeding that is not your normal menstruation.

After a physical examination with the help of a colposcope (special lighted microscope) by a specialist, the specialist may remove a small sample of a tissue and test it under the microscope (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis. Various staging tests and imaging tests may also be performed to determine the size and location of the cancer and how far its spread.

This will be followed by treatment that would include surgical procedures to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or combination of these methods.

Reconstruction surgery may be required in case if a part of the skin is removed during the surgery. Skin grafting may be done from other parts to replace this area.

Although living with cancer is not easy, it is very important to cope with the side effects of these therapies. Moreover vulvar cancer is serious as it involves a women’s psychology (as women’s sexual function is affected). Sex may be difficult and painful making a woman feel sad and worthless.

Prevention of vulvar cancer can be possible by avoiding smoking, practicing safe sex to prevent sexually transmitted infections (HPV and HIV) and regular gynecologic exams to detect and treat it an early stage.  

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