Vulvar cancer occurs on the outer area of a woman’s genitalia, which is known as the vulva. This area includes the skin surrounding the vagina and urethra, as well as the labia and clitoris.
Although this disease can develop at any age, it is most common in older women. The most common types include vulvar squamous cell carcinoma and vulvar melanoma.
Women who have vulvar cancer may not have any symptoms. Also, the symptoms that are caused by vulvar cancer can also be caused by other medical conditions, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis to get the right treatment.
This type of cancer will often form as an itchy sore or lump on the vulva.
There are many risk factors associated with vulvar cancer which give us some clues as to its causes. Firstly, HPV infection is strongly associated with the disease with around a third of all cases of vulvar cancer being attributed to HPV. HPV is usually contracted via sexual activity.
Secondly, we know that immune system deficiencies can increase the risk of vulvar cancer. HIV and AIDS can cause a compromised immune system, as can some cancer treatments, corticosteroid medications and organ transplants.
Smoking is known to increase the risk of vulvar cancer, particularly in women who have the HPV infection. We also know that age is a factor since most women with the disease are aged 50 or older.
Lichen sclerosus, a skin condition which affects the genitals and can make the vulvar skin itchy and thin, may be a contributing factor to vulvar cancer. Around 4% of women with lichen sclerosus develop vulvar cancer in the future.
Finally, women who have had other forms of cancer, particularly cervical or vaginal cancer, or melanoma anywhere else on the body, are at an increased risk of developing vulvar cancer.
Treatment will depend upon the type of vulvar cancer involved, as well as the stage of the disease and the overall health of the patient.
Surgery is often recommended to remove the cancer. The types of surgery used include excision, partial or radical vulvectomy, extensive surgery, and reconstructive surgery. Nearby lymph nodes may also be surgically removed.
Since HPV tends to be the most common cause of vulvar cancer, women can take steps to reduce their risk of contracting the infection. Firstly, they should practice safe sex by using condoms and having regular sexual health screening.
Secondly, young women should consider having the HPV vaccine to immunize themselves from the infection. The vaccine is suitable for girls and women aged between 9 and 26, and can help to prevent against cervical and vulval cancers. However, it does not protect women who have already been infected with HPV.
Quitting smoking will also help to reduce the risk of vulvar cancers, and of all cancers. It’s also recommended that women undergo regular gynecological exams which can help to identify and treat precancerous conditions before they develop into a disease such as vulvar cancer.