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Cancer - vulva

Definition

Vulvar cancer is cancer that starts in the vulva. Vulvar cancer most often affects the labia, the folds of skin outside the vagina. In some cases, vulvar cancer starts on the clitoris or in glands on the sides of the vagina opening.

Alternative Names

Cancer - perineum

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Most vulvar cancers begin in skin cells called squamous cells. Other vulvar cancers are:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma
  • Sarcoma

Vulvar cancer is rare. Risk factors include:

Women with a condition called vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) have a high risk of developing vulvar cancer that spreads. Most cases of VIN, though, never lead to cancer.

Symptoms

Women with this condition will often have itching around the vagina for years. They may have used different skin creams. They may also have bleeding.

Other skin changes that may occur around the vulva:

  • Mole or freckle, which may be pink, red, white, or gray
  • Skin thickening or lump
  • Skin sore (ulcer)

Other symptoms:

Some women with vulvar cancer have no symptoms.

Signs and tests

The following tests are used to diagnose vulvar cancer:

Treatment

Treatment involves surgery to remove the cancer cells. If the tumor is large (more than 2 cm) or has grown deeply into the skin, the lymph nodes in the groin area may also be removed.

Radiation, with or without chemotherapy, may be used to treat advanced tumors or vulvar cancer that comes back.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Expectations (prognosis)

Most women with vulvar cancer who are diagnosed and treated at an early stage do well. But a woman's outcome depends on:

  • The size of the tumor
  • The type of vulvar cancer
  • Whether the cancer has spread

The cancer commonly comes back at or near the site of the original tumor.

Complications

Complications may include:

  • Spread of the cancer to other areas of the body
  • Side effects of radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks:

  • Local irritation
  • Skin color change
  • Sore on the vulva

Prevention

Practicing safer sex may decrease your risk of vulvar cancer. This includes using condoms to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

A vaccine is available to protect against certain forms of HPV infection. The vaccine is approved to prevent cervical cancer and genital warts. It may help prevent other cancers linked to HPV, such as vulvar cancer. The vaccine is given to young girls before they become sexually active, and to adolescents and women up to age 26.

Routine pelvic exams can help diagnose vulvar cancer at an earlier stage. Earlier diagnosis improves your chances that treatment will be successful. 

References

Fuh KC, Berek JS. Current management of vulvar cancer. Hematol Oncol Clin N Am. 2012;26:45–62.

Jhingran A, Russell AH, Seiden MV, et al. Cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2008:chap 91.

National Cancer Institute: PDQ Vulvar Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified 02/21/2013. Available at http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/vulvar/HealthProfessional. Accessed 03/06/2013.


Review Date: 3/4/2013
Reviewed By: Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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