We treat women with vulvar cancer using advanced techniques that maximize positive outcomes and restore quality of life. Our experts at the Women's Cancer Center in Central PA have vast experience treating this disease.
What is Vulvar Cancer?
Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that occurs on the outer part of the female genitalia. The vulva includes the opening of the vagina, the labia (the folds of skin around the urethra and vagina), and the clitoris. Vulvar cancer commonly forms as a lump or sore on the vulva that often causes itching. Though it can occur at any age, vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older women. Vulvar cancer treatment usually involves surgery to remove the cancer and a small amount of surrounding healthy tissue. Sometimes vulvar cancer surgery requires removing the entire vulva. The earlier vulvar cancer is diagnosed, the less likely an extensive surgery is needed for treatment.
Vulvar Cancer Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:
- Itching that doesn't go away
- Pain and tenderness
- Bleeding that isn't from menstruation
- Skin changes, such as color changes or thickening
- A lump, wart-like bumps or an open sore (ulcer)
While these symptoms can be signs of vulvar cancer, they can also indicate less serious, noncancerous conditions. If you have symptoms that won't go away and cannot be explained by other reasons, report them to your doctor.
Risk Factors for Vulvar Cancer
Although the exact cause of vulvar cancer isn't known, certain factors appear to increase your risk of the disease, including:
- Increasing age. The risk of vulvar cancer increases with age, though it can occur at any age. The average age at diagnosis is 65.
- Being exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that increases the risk of several cancers, including vulvar cancer and cervical cancer.
- Having a history of precancerous conditions of the vulva.
- Having a skin condition involving the vulva. Lichen sclerosus, which causes the vulvar skin to become thin and itchy, increases the risk of vulvar cancer.
Diagnosing Vulvar Cancer
Tests and procedures used to diagnose vulvar cancer include:
- Examining your vulva. Your doctor will likely conduct a physical exam of your vulva to look for abnormalities.
- Using a special magnifying device to examine your vulva. During a colposcopy exam, 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 (biopsy). To determine whether an area of suspicious skin on your vulva is cancer, your doctor may recommend removing a sample of skin for testing. During a biopsy procedure, the area is numbed with a local anesthetic and a scalpel or other special cutting tool is used to remove all or part of the suspicious area. Depending on how much skin is removed, you may need stitches.
- Examination of your pelvic area for cancer spread. Your doctor may do a more thorough examination of your pelvis to look for signs that the cancer has spread.
- Imaging tests. Images of your chest or abdomen may show whether the cancer has spread to those areas. Imaging tests may include X-ray, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).
Vulvar Cancer Treatment
Treatment options for vulvar cancer depend on the type and stage of your cancer as well as your overall health.
Surgery for Vulvar Cancer
Operations used to treat vulvar cancer include:
- Removing the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue (excision). This procedure, which may also be called a wide local excision or radical excision, involves cutting out the cancer and a small amount of normal tissue that surrounds it. Cutting out what doctors refer to as a margin of normal-looking tissue helps ensure that all of the cancerous cells have been removed.
- Removing a portion of the vulva (partial vulvectomy). During a partial vulvectomy, a portion of the vulva is removed, along with its underlying tissues.
- Removing the entire vulva (radical vulvectomy). Radical vulvectomy involves removal of the entire vulva, including the clitoris and underlying tissues.
- Extensive surgery for advanced cancer. If cancer has spread beyond the vulva to nearby organs, your doctor may recommend removing all of the vulva and the involved organs in a procedure called pelvic exenteration.
- Reconstructive surgery. Treatment of vulvar cancer often involves removal of some skin from your vulva. The wound or area left behind can usually be closed without grafting skin from another area of your body.
- Surgery to remove nearby lymph nodes. Vulvar cancer often spreads to the lymph nodes in the groin, so your doctor may remove these lymph nodes at the time you undergo surgery to remove the cancer. Depending on your situation, your doctor may remove a few or many lymph nodes.
Chemotherapy for Vulvar Cancer
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are typically administered through a vein in your arm or by mouth. For women with advanced vulvar cancer that has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be an option. Sometimes chemotherapy is combined with radiation therapy to shrink large vulvar cancers to make it more likely that surgery will be successful. Radiation Therapy Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer is usually administered by a machine that moves around your body and directs radiation to precise points on your skin (external beam radiation).
Need more information? Our friendly staff can assist you. To get in touch, request information or call 717-221-5940 for more information or to make an appointment.