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Vulvar cancer: Symptoms, causes, treatment and more

What Is Vulvar Cancer?

Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the vulva, which is the external part of a woman’s genitalia. The vulva includes the labia majora (the outer lips), the labia minora (the inner lips), the clitoris, and the vaginal opening. Vulvar cancer can develop in any of these areas.

Vulvar cancer is relatively rare compared to other types of cancer, such as breast or lung cancer. It typically starts in the cells of the vulvar skin and can manifest as a lump, sore, or abnormal growth on the vulva.

Types of Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer that occurs in the vulva, the external female genitalia. There are several types of vulvar cancer, with the most common being squamous cell carcinoma. The different types of vulvar cancer include:

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This is the most common type of vulvar cancer, accounting for about 90% of all cases. It begins in the thin, flat cells that line the vulva. Squamous cell carcinomas can be further categorized into different subtypes based on their appearance and characteristics, including keratinizing, non-keratinizing, basaloid, and warty variants.

Adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma of the vulva develops in the glandular cells of the vulva. This type is less common than squamous cell carcinoma and is often associated with sweat glands (eccrine adenocarcinoma) or Bartholin’s glands (Bartholin gland adenocarcinoma).

Melanoma

Vulvar melanoma arises in the melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the skin. Melanoma can occur on any part of the body, including the vulva, and is typically more aggressive than other types of vulvar cancer.

Sarcoma

Vulvar sarcoma is a rare type of vulvar cancer that originates in the connective tissue or muscle of the vulva. These tumors are often aggressive and can be challenging to treat.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is another rare type of vulvar cancer that develops in the basal cells of the epidermis, which is the outer layer of the skin.

Verrucous Carcinoma

Verrucous carcinoma is a subtype of squamous cell carcinoma and is typically slow-growing. It is characterized by wart-like growths on the vulva.

What Are the Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer?

Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer that affects the external female genitalia. The symptoms of vulvar cancer can vary from person to person, but they often include:

  1. Persistent Itching: One of the most common early symptoms is itching in the vulvar area that doesn’t go away with usual treatments.
  2. Pain: Women with vulvar cancer may experience pain or discomfort in the vulvar area, which can be constant or intermittent.
  3. Bleeding: Abnormal vaginal bleeding, including bleeding after sexual intercourse or between periods, can be a sign of vulvar cancer.
  4. Skin Changes: The skin of the vulva may change in color, texture, or thickness. You may notice the development of lumps, warts, or sores.
  5. Ulcers or Open Sores: Open sores or ulcers on the vulvar skin that don’t heal can be a concerning sign.
  6. Skin Discoloration: Areas of the vulvar skin may become discolored, often appearing red, pink, or white.
  7. Swelling: Swelling in the vulvar area may occur, and this can sometimes be accompanied by a feeling of fullness or discomfort.
  8. Painful Urination: Some women with vulvar cancer may experience pain or discomfort while urinating.

Who Is at Risk for Vulvar Cancer?

Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer that affects the external female genitalia. Several factors can increase the risk of developing vulvar cancer, including:

Age

  • Vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women over the age of 50, with the average age of diagnosis being in the late 60s.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection

  • Certain strains of HPV, particularly HPV 16 and 18, are associated with an increased risk of vulvar cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, and vaccination against HPV can help reduce the risk of infection and subsequent vulvar cancer.

Smoking

  • Smoking tobacco is a risk factor for various types of cancer, including vulvar cancer. Chemicals in tobacco can increase the risk of cancer in many parts of the body.

Immune system suppression

  • Conditions or medications that weaken the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS or immunosuppressive drugs used after organ transplantation, can increase the risk of vulvar cancer.

Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)

  • VIN is a precancerous condition of the vulva, and having VIN increases the risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Chronic skin conditions

  • Some chronic skin conditions of the vulva, such as lichen sclerosus or lichen planus, can increase the risk of vulvar cancer.

Previous history of cervical cancer

  • Women who have had cervical cancer may have an increased risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Family history

  • Although it’s rare, a family history of vulvar cancer may be a risk factor.

Obesity

  • Some studies have suggested that obesity may be associated with an increased risk of vulvar cancer.

High estrogen levels

  • Long-term use of estrogen replacement therapy without progesterone in postmenopausal women may be associated with a slightly increased risk of vulvar cancer.

How Is Vulvar Cancer Diagnosed?

Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer that occurs in the external female genitalia, specifically the vulva. Early detection and diagnosis are crucial for effective treatment. Here are the common methods used to diagnose vulvar cancer:

Physical Examination: The first step in diagnosing vulvar cancer typically involves a thorough physical examination by a healthcare provider. They will examine the vulva and may use a colposcope, which is a magnifying instrument, to get a closer look at the affected area.

Biopsy: If the healthcare provider suspects vulvar cancer based on the physical examination, they will perform a biopsy. During a biopsy, a small sample of tissue is removed from the suspicious area for laboratory analysis. This is the most definitive way to diagnose vulvar cancer and determine the type and stage of the cancer.

Imaging Tests: Once vulvar cancer is confirmed, imaging tests like MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans may be performed to assess the extent of the cancer, its size, and whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs.

Pelvic Exam: A pelvic exam may be performed to check for any signs of cancer spread to the cervix, uterus, or other pelvic organs.

Lymph Node Evaluation: To determine if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, a lymph node dissection or sentinel lymph node biopsy may be recommended. Sentinel lymph node biopsy is a procedure where the first lymph node that cancer is likely to spread to is removed and examined.

PET-CT Scans: In some cases, a PET-CT scan may be used to identify distant metastases if the cancer is suspected to have spread beyond the pelvic region.

How Is Vulvar Cancer Staged?

Vulvar cancer is staged to determine the extent of the disease, which helps doctors plan the most appropriate treatment. The staging system used for vulvar cancer is typically the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) staging system, which categorizes the cancer into different stages based on the size and spread of the tumor. Here’s an overview of how vulvar cancer is staged:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in situ):

  • In situ means that the cancer cells are confined to the surface layers of the vulvar skin and have not invaded deeper tissue. It is also known as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN).

Stage I:

  • In stage I, the cancer is limited to the vulva and has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs. It may be divided into two sub-stages:
  • Stage IA: The tumor is 2 cm or smaller.
  • Stage IB: The tumor is larger than 2 cm.

Stage II:

  • In stage II, the cancer has spread to nearby structures, such as the perineal body (the area between the vaginal and anal openings), the lower urethra, and/or the anus.

Stage III:

  • Stage III vulvar cancer indicates the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. It may be divided into two sub-stages:
  • Stage IIIA: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes that are 5 cm or smaller in size.
  • Stage IIIB: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes larger than 5 cm.

Stage IVA:

  • Stage IVA vulvar cancer means that the cancer has invaded adjacent structures like the upper urethra, bladder, rectum, or pelvic bones.

Stage IVB:

  • In stage IVB, the cancer has spread to distant organs, such as the lungs, liver, or bones.

How Is Vulvar Cancer Treated?

Vulvar cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the external female genitalia, specifically the vulva. The treatment for vulvar cancer depends on several factors, including the stage of the cancer, the location and size of the tumor, the patient’s overall health, and their personal preferences. Treatment options may include one or a combination of the following:

Surgery

Surgery is the primary treatment for most cases of vulvar cancer. The extent of surgery may vary depending on the stage and size of the tumor. Surgical options may include:

Local excision: Removal of a small tumor that is confined to the vulva.

Vulvectomy: This involves removing a portion or the entire vulva, depending on the extent of cancer. The type of vulvectomy performed will vary and may include a partial vulvectomy, radical vulvectomy, or wide local excision.

Lymph node dissection

In some cases, lymph nodes in the groin area may be removed to check for the spread of cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or other forms of radiation to target and kill cancer cells. It may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is not typically the first-line treatment for vulvar cancer but may be used in advanced cases or when cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a newer treatment option that helps the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Some immunotherapies are being studied for use in vulvar cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy involves drugs that target specific molecules or pathways involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. It is also being researched as a potential treatment for vulvar cancer.

Palliative care

In advanced stages of cancer, palliative care may be recommended to manage symptoms, improve the patient’s quality of life, and provide emotional and psychological support.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for People with Vulvar Cancer make a paragraph


The long-term outlook for people with vulvar cancer can vary depending on several factors, including the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed and the treatment options available. In general, when vulvar cancer is diagnosed at an early stage and treated promptly, the prognosis is often favorable. Surgery is the primary treatment for early-stage vulvar cancer, and when the cancer is completely removed, the chances of a full recovery are good. However, for more advanced stages or cases where the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs, the prognosis may be less favorable. Regular follow-up care and monitoring are essential to detect any potential recurrences or complications. Overall, advances in medical treatments and early detection techniques have improved the long-term outlook for vulvar cancer patients, but each case is unique, and individual outcomes can vary. It’s crucial for patients to work closely with their healthcare team to determine the best treatment plan and prognosis for their specific situation.

Also Read: Cancer: Definition Types, Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Ashish Matoliya
Ashish Matoliya
Ashish brings a unique blend of expertise, empathy, and practical guidance to his writing. His articles are not just informative but also designed to inspire and motivate. Whether you're looking for workout tips, strategies for managing mental health, or seeking to improve your overall well-being, Ashish's content is your roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
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