What Is Vulvar Cancer?
Vulvar cancer and cervical cancer are pretty similar; they are both caused by HPV. Vulvar cancer usually starts with a mass or lump found on the vulvar skin. The mass or lump often causes irritation or bleeding, and a biopsy is required to diagnose cancer. Vulvar cancer is the least common type of gynecologic cancer.
Doctors are unsure of what causes vulvar cancer; all they know is cancer begins when a cell develops mutations. The mutations cause the cell to grow and split at a fast rate. Then, the cell and its ‘twin’ continue to live when healthy cells would usually die. These cells begin to form tumors that may be cancerous.
Types of Vulvar Cancer
There are two types of vulvar cancer. Knowing which disease you are diagnosed with will help the doctor plan the most effective treatment for you. The types include:
- Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma: Usually, vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Cancer begins in the thin flat cells that line the surface of the vulva.
- Vulvar melanoma: This starts in the pigment-producing cells found in the vulvar skin.
Even though the cause of vulvar cancer is still unclear, many factors may increase your risk of disease.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes may increase the risk of vulvar cancer
- Being exposed to human papillomavirus(HPV): This is a sexually transmitted infection that, when revealed, will increase the risk of several cancers.
- Increasing age: vulvar cancer can occur at any age, but the risk of cancer increases with age. The average diagnosis age is 65.
- Having a skin condition involving the vulva: If you have an existing skin condition such as lichen sclerosus, which causes the skin on the vulva to become very thin and itchy, it will increase your risk of vulvar cancer.
- Having a weakened immune system: if you take medications to suppress your immune system or if you have undergone an organ transplant or have HIV, you are more at risk of vulvar cancer.
- Having a history of precancerous conditions of the vulva: a precancerous condition such as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia or VIN increases your risk of vulvar cancer. Most of the time, this condition won’t turn into cancer, but a small amount develops into invasive vulvar cancer.
The signs and symptoms of this cancer may include:
- A lump or wart-like bumps
- Bleeding that isn’t from menstruation
- Pain and tenderness
- Uncontrollable itching
- Skin changes, like color-changing or thickening
If any of these symptoms are persistent, make an appointment with your doctor or gynecologist.
Reducing your risk of sexually transmitted infections will decrease your risk of getting vulvar cancer. The more sexual partners you have, the more you are exposed to HPV. Using a condom every time you have sex may reduce the risk of infections and HPV but won’t fully protect against it. You may consider getting the HPV vaccine that protects against the strains of the virus that are thought to cause most cases of vulvar cancer.
The tests and procedures that are used to diagnose vulvar cancer include:
- Examination: Your doctor may examine your vulva and look for abnormalities.
- Colposcopy: Your doctor will use a device that is similar to a magnifying glass to get a closer look at your vulva for abnormalities.
- Biopsy: If an area of skin is deemed ‘suspicious,’ your doctor may remove a sample for skin testing. For a biopsy, the doctor will numb the area and use a cutting tool to remove the area. This may or may not require stitches.
When your doctor has confirmed your diagnosis, they will determine the size and stage of your cancer. They may do a thorough examination of your pelvis to see if cancer has spread. Your doctor may also take X-rays, CTs, MRIs, or PET scans. These images will show if cancer has spread to your chest or abdomen.
Stages of Vulvar Cancer
- Stage I: a small tumor is confined to the vulva or perineum (the area of skin between your vaginal opening and anus. Cancer has not spread.
- Stage II: Tumors have grown to nearby structures like lower portions of your urethra vagina and anus.
- Stage III: The cancer spread to lymph nodes.
- Stage IV: cancer has spread to lymph nodes or upper portions of the vagina and urethra, bladder, rectum, or pelvic bone. Cancer also may have spread to other parts of your body.
The options for treatment depend on the type and stage of your cancer, health, and preferences. There are two types of surgery that remove vulvar cancer.
- Excision: This procedure will remove the cancer and a portion of healthy tissue. It also may be called a wide local excision or radical excision. The doctors cut out a portion of healthy tissue to ensure that all the cancerous cells were removed.
- Extensive surgery: a partial vulvectomy or radical vulvectomy is used for more significant cancers. A partial vulvectomy removes part of the vulva, while a radical vulvectomy removes the entire vulva. Doctors may also recommend radiation and chemotherapy in hopes of shrinking the cancer before surgery, which may lead to less extensive surgery.
A radical vulvectomy will have various complications such as infection and problems healing around the incision. Surgery involving your vulva may change feeling and sensation in your genital area. It may cause the area to feel numb.
Follow up Tests After Treatment
After your completion of vulvar cancer treatment, your doctor may recommend periodic follow-up exams to make sure the cancer has not come back. Vulvar cancer can return, and it is essential to follow up with your doctor after surgery at least two to four times a year.
Doctors at Nevada Surgery and Cancer Center
At Nevada Surgery and Cancer Care, our doctors help provide the best possible treatments for vulvar cancer. Our experienced doctors are well versed in knowing what signs to look for during exams and will try and catch any cancer before it metastasizes. Contact us today and discuss exams for vulvar cancer with the most caring doctors in Las Vegas.