What is vulvar cancer?
The vulva is the skin and fatty tissue between the upper thighs of women. It extends from the area of the anus to about an inch below the pubic hairline. Cancer of the vulva most often affects the two skin folds (or lips) around the vagina, known as the labia.
Vulvar cancer is not very common. However, it is very serious because it is cancer. It can affect a woman’s sexual functioning. It can make sex painful and difficult. If found early, vulvar cancer has a high cure rate and the treatment options involve less surgery.
Tell your doctor if you have any of these warning signs of vulvar cancer:
- Vulvar itching that lasts more than a few weeks
- A cut or sore on the vulva that won’t heal
- A lump or mass on the vulva
- Vulvar pain
- Bleeding from the vulva (different from your usual menstrual bleeding)
- Burning in the genital area that lasts even after your doctor has treated the burning
- Any change in size, color, or texture of a birthmark or mole in the vulvar area
Vulvar cancer most often affects women 65 to 75 years of age. However, it can also occur in women 40 years of age or younger. Vulvar cancer may be related to genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
If your doctor finds an abnormal area on the vulva, they may want to take a small piece of tissue to look at under a microscope. This procedure can be done in the doctor’s office. It is called a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to find out if you have vulvar cancer.
Can vulvar cancer be prevented or avoided?
Currently, there is no known way to prevent vulvar cancer. However, you may reduce your risk by not smoking or vaping.
HPV infections may increase your risk for developing vulvar cancer but can be prevented by taking the HPV vaccine.
Vulvar cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments. The type of surgery depends on the size, depth and spread of the cancer. Your doctor will review all the options for surgery and the pros and cons of each option. Even with surgery, some people may also need radiation therapy.
When vulvar cancer is found and treated early, the cure rate is more than 90%. The key to a cure is to tell your doctor about any warning signs early and to have a biopsy right away. After treatment, be sure to go to all follow-up appointments that your doctor recommends.
Living with vulvar cancer
If surgery is part of your treatment, your body may look different afterward. Talk to your doctor about this so that you are prepared. These changes may make you feel different or less attractive. It may take time to get used to the changes. Remember, your friends and family love you. Let them support you during this time. Do not push them away.
Even with treatment, vulvar cancer may not completely go away. Or, if it does, you may live in fear of it coming back. That can cause much stress for you and your loved ones. Consider joining a support group or talking to a therapist about your feelings. Invite your family to do the same.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- Can a Pap smear detect vulvar cancer?
- What is the right treatment for my vulvar cancer?
- If I’ve had vulvar cancer, am I more likely to get it again?
- Will my treatment have any effect on my sex drive or on my enjoyment of sex?
- Can vulvar cancer run in families?