Vulvar Cancer | Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center | Loyola Medicine

Vulvar Cancer

Why Choose Loyola for Vulvar Cancer?

This type of cancer occurs on a woman’s external genitalia, or vulva, which is the tissue surrounding the vagina, clitoris and urethra. This tissue is called the labia majora and labia minora. The type of vulvar cancer depends on the tissue on which it is found, including:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Most common type, begins on the labia
  • Adenocarcinoma: Begins in the glands on the sides of the vaginal opening (Bartholin’s glands)
  • Melanoma: Most rare type, begins on the clitoris or labia minora

Signs and Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer

Symptoms of vulvar cancer are often not experienced or noted because they are relatively mild and/or easily mistaken for another medical condition. These symptoms include:

  • A lump, growth or bumps in/on the vulvar area
  • A patch of skin that is thicker or a different color from the skin surrounding it
  • Itching, pain, soreness or burning in the vulvar area that doesn’t go away
  • Painful urination
  • Bleeding that is not due to your menstrual cycle
  • Persistent ulcer

See your doctor if you experience these symptoms, especially a large amount of bleeding, burning, itching and/or pain in the vulvar area. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Vulvar Cancer

It is not known what causes vulvar cancer, but there are certain risk factors that may increase your chance of developing it, including:

  • Age: Most vulvar cancer occurs in women older than 50
  • HIV/AIDS infection
  • HPV infection
  • Immune system deficiency
  • Lichen sclerosis (a skin condition on the vulvar area)
  • Precancerous conditions of the vulva, such as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia
  • Smoking

How Is Vulvar Cancer Diagnosed?

An annual gynecologic exam is important in catching vulvar cancer in its earliest stages. Regular screening is key to identifying cancer before it has the chance to spread.

If cancer is suspected, your doctor will examine your vulvar area in a thorough physical exam. He/she may also use a test called a colposcopy, during which a sample of tissue (biopsy) may be removed for testing. If your doctor confirms that you have vulvar cancer, he/she will order imaging test (MRI, CT scan, X-ray and/or PET scan) to determine how far the cancer has spread, if at all.

The type of testing ordered will depend on a number of factors, including your age, symptoms and general health.

How is Vulvar Cancer Treated?

Treatment options for vulvar cancer usually involve surgery, which may be combined with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

The type of surgical procedure your doctor recommends will take into account your age, overall medical health, desire to have children and your general preferences.

Surgical options include:

  • Excision: The cancer is cut out from the surrounding healthy tissue
  • Vulvectomy: either partial or full, in which a portion of the entire vulvar tissue is removed
  • Lymphadenectomy/lymph node dissection: Removal of the lymph nodes
  • Pelvic exenteration: Removal of the bladder, rectum, lower colon, cervix, ovaries and vagina. A stoma (opening) may have to be created so urine and stool can pass through the colon into an exterior bag.

After any surgical procedure for vulvar cancer, your doctor may need to perform reconstructive surgery depending on how much tissue was removed. Talk to your doctor about all your options for treating vulvar cancer and the possible risks and complications of each treatment method. 

Prevention and Screening for Vulvar Cancer

There is no proven way to prevent vulvar cancer, but there are certain steps you can take to lower your risk.

There are also certain lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent developing vulvar cancer:

  • Avoid sexual activity with many partners or with a partner who has had multiple partners before
  • Delay sexual intercourse until the late teens or older
  • Do not smoke
  • Get the HPV vaccine
  • Have regular Pap tests
  • Practice safe sexual activity