The vulva is the external part of the female genitalia. It is the area of the skin surrounding the urethra and the opening of the vagina. The vulva includes other female sex organs such as the clitoris and labia.
Vulvar cancer is cancer that develops on the healthy cells (tissues) of the vulva. This type of cancer can develop anywhere or in any organ of the vulva. It develops in the form of a lump or tumour.
The signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer are not always obvious, especially during its early stages. Vulvar cancer symptoms develop gradually and become most noticeable in advanced stages. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Changes in the skin of the vulva
- Abnormal growths or lumps on the vulva
- Abnormal rashes
- Itching or burning sensation
- Bleeding in the vulva region that is unrelated to menstruation
- Tenderness in the vulva area
- Pain in the pelvis, especially during urination or sexual intercourse
Vulvar cancer causes are not exactly known. However, researchers know that the development of cancer is attributed to DNA changes. Vulvar cancer occurs when healthy cells begin to divide and multiply at an abnormal rate leading to the development of mass called tumour.
There are two different types of vulvar cancer depending on the type of cells that are affected. These include – Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma and Vulvar melanoma.
Vulvar cancer is rare but can affect anyone. Common risk factors increasing the chances of getting vulvar cancer:
- Women in the advanced age group (over 65 years)
- Exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Weakened immune system
- History of precancerous conditions of the vulva
- Skin condition involving the vulva
The diagnosis of vulvar cancer is usually drawn in advanced stages due to its asymptomatic nature in the early stages. Vulvar cancer diagnosis is done when a woman presents with the above-given symptoms or during routine checkup. There are a range of tests and screenings done to detect vulvar cancer. Common diagnostics include:
- Physical examination of the vulva
- Colposcopy exam
- Tissue biopsy
Additional testing is done to detect the stage and extent of cancer. These include pelvic exams and CT scans.
The treatment of vulvar cancer depends on various factors. These include the type, location and stage of cancer as well the patient’s age and overall health. Based on your individual biological markers, your doctor will devise a treatment plan suited to your health needs.
Common treatment protocols for vulvar cancer include:
- Surgical removal of cancer along with the removal of a margin of healthy tissues
- Vulvectomy (removing a part of or entire vulva)
- Surgical removal of nearby lymph nodes
- Targeted drug therapy