Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer which occurs on the outer surface area of the female genitalia. The vulva is the area of skin which surrounds the vagina and urethra, including the labia and clitoris.
This cancer commonly forms as a sore or lump on the vulva often causing itching. Vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older adults but it can occur at any age.
The treatment of vulvar cancer usually involves surgery for the removal of cancer and a small amount of adjacent healthy tissue. Occasionally vulvar cancer surgery requires the removal of entire vulva.
Symptoms of vulvar cancer
There are different types of vulvar cancer having different symptoms, and in some cases, there may be no obvious symptom. Thus, any changes which take place should be checked with a medic.
Usually, the first symptom is a lump or ulceration, possibly with irritation, itching, or bleeding. Other signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer may comprise;
- Itching which does not go away
- Pain and soreness
- Bleeding that is not from menstruation
- Skin changes, like color changes or thickening
- A lump, wartlike bumps or an open sore
- Painful urination
- An ulcer which persists for more than 1 month
Causes of vulvar cancer
Actually, it is not clear what causes vulvar cancer. Generally, GPs know that cancer arises when a cell develops mutations in the DNA.
These mutations allow the cell to grow and multiply rapidly. The cell and its progeny go on living when normal cells would die. Consequently, the accumulating cells form a tumor which may be cancerous, attacking nearby tissue and also spreading to other parts of the body.
The exact cause of vulvar cancer is unknown. However, there are certain factors which may increase the risk of the disease. These factors include;
- Increasing age; usually vulvar cancer can occur at any age but the risk increases with age. The average age of its diagnosis is 65.
- Being exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV); HPV is a sexually transmitted infection which increases the risk of different cancers, counting cervical cancer and vulvar cancer. Many young, sexually active individuals are exposed to HPV, but for most the infection goes away on its own. In some cases, the infection causes cell changes and increases the risk of cancer.
- Smoking; smoking cigarettes also increases the risk of vulvar cancer.
- Having a weakened immune system; people who take medicines to suppress the immune system, like those who have undergone an organ transplant, and those with conditions which weaken the immune system, like HIV, have an increased risk of cancer.
- Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN); vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia is a precancerous condition, in which certain cells within the vulvar epithelium have a range of low-grade carcinoma. Thus, women with VIN have a knowingly higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.
- Having a skin condition involving the vulva; Lichen sclerosis causes the vulvar skin to become thin and itchy, and it may increase the susceptibility to vulvar cancer slightly.
Can vulvar cancer be prevented?
It is not possible to prevent vulvar cancer wholly, but you may reduce your risk. Here are certain measures which can help you reduce the risk of developing vulvar cancer;
- practicing safe sex
- attending scheduled cervical smear tests
- having the HPV vaccination
- not smoking
There is no typical screening for vulvar cancer, but women should carry out tests as their doctor recommends, and be aware of any changes to their body.
The outlook is better with a timely diagnosis. HPV vaccination may also reduce the chances of developing vulvar cancer. Therefore, this vaccination is now offered to all girls of 12 to 13 years old as part of their routine childhood immunization program.