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What is Vulvar Cancer?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Vulvar cancer can refer to several different types of malignancies that begin on the vulva. The condition is very rare, and it is not well understood by doctors and medical researchers. Most cases are directly linked with human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, but some otherwise healthy women may be genetically predisposed to developing a form of vulvar cancer late in life. Palpable lumps on the vulva, skin thickening and discoloration, and unusual bleeding may all be early warning signs of a tumor. Early detection and surgical treatment is essential in providing the best chances of recovery.

HPV is a common type of sexually transmitted infection in women. There are many different strains of the virus, and most do not lead to cervical or vulvar cancer. If an HPV infection goes unnoticed or it is left untreated for several years, the risk of cancer increases dramatically. In absence of HPV, a familial history of vulvar cancer or skin melanoma makes it more likely that a woman will develop a tumor around the age of 70. Finally, many cases appear to be sporadic and cannot be predicted based on health or genetics.

A tumor can appear anywhere on or around the vulva, but most cancers arise on the labia majora or clitoral hood. Lesions on the labia minora and clitoris are possible, but much less common. Early symptoms of vulvar cancer include thickening and hardening of skin tissue, one or more lumps or lesions, and tenderness. A lesion may bleed, burn, or itch if it breaks open. If vulvar cancer goes untreated, it can potentially spread to the cervix, lymph nodes, or the skin around the external genitalia.

A gynecologist can diagnose vulvar cancer by performing a careful physical examination and collecting a small skin sample for a biopsy. A pap smear test is usually performed as well to confirm or rule out HPV involvement. If cancerous cells are indeed discovered during a biopsy, further diagnostic tests are conducted to make sure the cancer is isolated to the vulva.

Vulvar cancer that is diagnosed in its earliest stages can usually be cured with surgery. A surgeon may choose to excise a tumor with a scalpel or use a laser to ablate superficial cancer cells. If malignancies are deep within skin tissue, a procedure called a vulvectomy may be necessary to remove part or all of the vulva. Chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and additional surgeries can be considered if cancer has already spread.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By recapitulate — On Aug 08, 2011

@BambooForest- I really think I agree with you, but at the same time I'm glad they had that vaccine to offer, even to young girls. They might not know about it when they get it, but it's a good precaution for if something happens when those girls are older.

That said, I never got it either, because my doctor never recommended it to me in a serious way.

By BambooForest — On Aug 07, 2011

I was still in high school a few years ago when HPV became a big worry, and women ages 11 to 23 were told to get vaccinations for it. I honestly thought it was really weird to tell 11 year old girls to get shots for what was basically a sexually transmitted disease. I know it's better to be safe than sorry, but when I was 11 I didn't even know what a sexually transmitted disease was.

I still haven't gotten the shot, even though now I'm close to what I think is the cut off age for the shot. I decided I think it's more about lifestyle as prevention than getting vaccines.

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