Vulvar Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: July 6, 2018

The vulva is the outside parts of woman’s sex organs. The vulva is made up of the labia, clitoris, mons pubis, the entryway to the vagina (vestibule) and the perineum. Vulvar cancer is cancer that starts in the vulva. It is caused by vulvar cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. 

Vulvar cancer that has spread from the vulva to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Some risks include:

  • Having gone through menopause
  • Infection with HPV
  • Smoking
  • HIV
  • Having had some other gynecologic cancer or melanoma in the past

Signs of Vulvar Cancer

The signs can include:

  • Itching
  • Pain and pain with sex
  • Bleeding and/or discharge
  • Lesions or new skin growths

Diagnosis of Vulvar Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have vulvar cancer, they will order tests. Here are some of the tests:

  • Colposcopy and vulvoscopy
  • Pap test

These tests are important but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have cancer. A biopsy:

  • Looks at a piece of the vulva for cancer cells
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, how normal it is [grade], and if it has spread
  • May look at samples from lymph nodes to check for cancer

A pathology report sums up these results and is sent to your healthcare provider, often 5-10 days after the colposcopy or vulvoscopy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.

Staging Vulvar Cancer

To guide treatment, vulvar cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of vulvar cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used:

  • Surgery can be used to remove the cancer. 
  • Radiation, the use of high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells, can be used. 
  • Chemotherapy, the use of medications to kill cancer cells, can be given. 

This article is a basic guide to vulvar cancer. You can learn more about your type of vulvar cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All About Vulvar Cancer

Surgical Treatments: Vulvectomy

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