Vulvar cancer is a rare type of cancer that starts in the cells of the vulva, which is the outer skin that surrounds the female genitalia, including the vaginal lips, clitoris and urethral opening. The main types of vulvar cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the thin, flat cells found on the vaginal lips, and adenocarcinomas, which begin in the cells that make mucus and other vaginal fluids.
Vulvar cancer risk factors, signs and symptoms
Like many forms of cancer, it is not clear what causes vulvar cancer though certain women may be more at risk. The average age of diagnosis is 65 years old, an indication that the risk increases with age.
You may also be more at risk if you:
- Have or have had HPV (human papillomavirus)
- Are a smoker
- Have a history of genital warts
- Have HIV or another condition that weakens the immune system
- Have a history of precancerous cell growth on vulvar skin (vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, or VIN)
Vulvar cancer develops slowly over time and signs of it may sometimes be detected during a routine gynecologic exam. You may notice signs and symptoms in the vulvar area, such as:
- Bleeding when not menstruating
- A lump or tenderness
- Rashes, ulcers, sores
- Redness or a change in skin color or thickness
If you have symptoms like these or have concerns about your risk of vulvar cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor. Your gynecologist will perform a physical exam and review of your medical history, and may recommend further testing such as a biopsy to test for the presence of abnormal cells.
If you are diagnosed with vulvar cancer, your doctor will talk with you about treatment options. Your treatment will depend on your age and health condition as well as how far the cancer has progressed. Treatment often includes a combination of surgery to remove the cancerous cells and surrounding tissue as well as radiation and chemotherapy.