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Vulvar Cancer (Cancer of the vulva): Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

  • Posted on- Sep 21, 2015
  • 2815 Views

Vulvar cancer is a rare cancer in which malignant cells form on the outer surface area of the female genitalia. Vulvar cancer commonly forms as a lump on the vulva that often causes itching. Vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older women but it is not limited to any age.

Vulvar cancer most often affects the outer vaginal lips. It usually develops slowly over a number of years. Cancer cells can grow on the surface of the vulvar skin for a long time. Vulvar cancer can be of different types- squamous cell carcinomas, adenocarcinoma, melanoma, sarcoma and basal cell carcinoma.

Having human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and multiple sexual partners can increase your chances of getting vulvar cancer.

Signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer

Signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer do not appear initially. When they do, they may be caused by vulvar cancer or by other conditions. Consult your doctor if you have any of the following signs:

  • An area on the vulva that looks different from normal
  • A lump or growth on the vulva
  • Changes in the vulvar skin, such as color changes or growths that look like a wart or ulcer
  • Itching in the vulvar area, that does not go away
  • Bleeding or discharge not related to the normal menstrual period
  • Tenderness in the vulvar area
  • Pain or burning

Tests and diagnosis of vulvar cancer

Your doctor may perform different tests and procedures in order to diagnose vulvar cancer:
  • Examining your vulva: Your doctor will likely conduct a physical examination of your vulva to look for irregularities.
  • Using a special magnifying device to examine your vulva: This process is known as colposcopy where your doctor uses a device that works like a magnifying glass to closely inspect your vulva for abnormal areas.
  • Removing a sample of tissue for testing: The process is known as biopsy which is done to determine whether an area of suspicious skin on your vulva is cancer. Your doctor will remove all or part of the suspicious area and send it to lab for testing.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests may include X-ray, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) which are helpful in determining whether the cancer has spread to other areas.

Treatment options for vulvar cancer

There are different types of treatment for patients with vulvar cancer:
  • Removing the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue: This procedure involves removing the cancer and a small amount of normal tissue that surrounds it to ensure that all of the cancerous cells have been removed.
  • Removing a portion of the vulva: In this procedure, a portion of the vulva is removed, along with its underlying tissues.
  • Removing the entire vulva: This procedure involves removal of the entire vulva, including the clitoris and underlying tissues.
  • Surgery for advanced cancer: If cancer has spread beyond the vulva and involves nearby organs, your doctor may recommend removing all of the vulva and the involved organs.
  • Surgery to remove nearby lymph nodes: Vulvar cancer can spread to the lymph nodes, so your doctor may remove these lymph nodes at the time you undergo surgery to remove the cancer. Depending on the case, your doctor may remove only a few or many lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer is usually administered externally. It is sometimes used to shrink large vulvar cancers in order to make surgery successful.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a treatment where anti-cancer medications are used to execute cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are administered through a vein in your arm or by mouth. This type of treatment is successful against advanced vulvar cancer.

Post the success of your treatment, your oncologist may recommend periodic follow-up exams to look for a cancer recurrence because vulvar cancer can return.

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