Vulvar cancer can start in any part of the external female sex organs (genitals). It most commonly develops in the labia minora, the inner edges of the labia majora, and the perineum. Less often, it involves the clitoris or Bartholin glands.
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How common is cancer of the vulva?
Vulvar cancer is not common – each year in Australia, about 340 women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer. Although it most commonly affects women who have gone through menopause – diagnoses of vulvar cancer in women under 60 have increased in recent years. This is likely to be due to the rising rates of infection with HPV.
What are the risk factors?
The exact cause of vulvar cancer is unknown, but factors that increase the risk of developing it include:
- Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Abnormal cervical screening test
- Other skin conditions
- Other cancers
- Weakened immune system
Symptoms of cancer of the vulva
Women with early vulvar cancer may have few obvious symptoms, but most women are diagnosed after a long history of vulvar symptoms. These may include:
- Itching, burning and soreness or pain in the vulva
- A lump, sore, swelling or wart-like growth on the vulva
- Thickened, raised skin patches (may be red, white or dark brown)
- A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
- Blood, pus or other discharge coming from an area of skin or sore spot in the vulva, which may have an offensive or unusual smell or colour (not related to your menstrual period)
- Hard or swollen lymph nodes in the groin area.
Many women don’t look at their vulva, so they don’t know what is normal for them. The vulva can be difficult to see without a mirror, and some women feel uncomfortable examining their genitals. However, if you feel any pain in your genital area or notice any of these symptoms, visit your general practitioner (GP) for a check-up.
The main tests used to diagnose vulvar cancer are a physical examination, a procedure called a colposcopy, and the removal of a tissue sample (biopsy). Because vulvar cancer is sometimes associated with cervical cancer, the doctor may check for abnormal cells in the vagina and cervix as part of these initial tests:
- Physical examination
- Biopsy – removal of a tissue sample
- Cervical Screening Test
Sometimes further tests are needed to assess your general health, determine the size and position of the cancer, and find out whether the cancer has spread. You will probably not need to have all of these tests:
Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
Treatment of cancer of the vulva
Vulvar cancer usually takes many years to develop but, like other types of cancer, it is easier to treat and cure at an early stage. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. You may have one of these treatments or a combination.
The treatment recommended by your doctor will depend on the results of your tests, the type of cancer, where the cancer is, whether it has spread, your age and your general health. You’ll have regular check-ups to see whether the cancer has responded to treatment.
For more information on the treatment of vulva cancer please refer to the Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers booklet.
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease in an individual woman. Instead your doctor can give you an idea about the general prognosis for women with the same type and stage of vulvar cancer.
In most cases, the earlier the vulvar cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment. To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider your tests results; the type of vulvar cancer you have; the stage and grade of the cancer, whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes; and other factors such as your age, fitness and overall health. In some cases, the doctor will not have enough information to assess the prognosis until after surgery to remove the cancer.
Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.
Whether you have been diagnosed with Vulvar cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.
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You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.
For more information on vulva cancer please refer to the Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers booklet.