Overview

Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that occurs on the outer surface area of the female genitalia. The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia.

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 adults.

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.

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, wartlike bumps or an open sore (ulcer)

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or gynecologist if you experience any persistent symptoms that worry you.

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Causes

It's not clear what causes vulvar cancer.

In general, doctors know that cancer begins when a cell develops changes (mutations) in its DNA. The DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The mutations tell the cell to grow and divide rapidly. The cell and its offspring go on living when other normal cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that may be cancerous, invading nearby tissue and spreading to other parts of the body.

Types of vulvar cancer

The type of cell in which vulvar cancer begins helps your doctor plan the most effective treatment. The most common types of vulvar cancer include:

  • Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer begins in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vulva. Most vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Vulvar melanoma. This cancer begins in the pigment-producing cells found in the skin of the vulva.

Risk factors

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. Many young, sexually active people are exposed to HPV, but for most the infection goes away on its own. For some, the infection causes cell changes and increases the risk of cancer in the future.
  • Smoking. Smoking increases the risk of vulvar cancer.
  • Having a weakened immune system. People who take medications to suppress the immune system, such as those who've undergone organ transplant, and those with conditions that weaken the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), have an increased risk of vulvar cancer.
  • Having a history of precancerous conditions of the vulva. Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia is a precancerous condition that increases the risk of vulvar cancer. Most instances of vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia will never develop into cancer, but a small number do go on to become invasive vulvar cancer. For this reason, your doctor may recommend treatment to remove the area of abnormal cells and periodic follow-up checks.
  • 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.

Prevention

Reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections

To reduce your risk of vulvar cancer, reduce your risk of the sexually transmitted infection HPV:

  • Use a condom every time you have sex. Condoms may reduce your risk of contracting HPV but can't fully protect against it.
  • Get the HPV vaccine. Children and young adults may consider the HPV vaccine, which protects against the strains of the virus that are thought to cause the most cases of vulvar cancer.

Ask your doctor about pelvic exams

Ask your doctor how often you should undergo pelvic exams. These exams allow your doctor to visually examine your vulva and manually examine your internal reproductive organs to check for abnormalities.

Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for vulvar cancer and other pelvic cancers in order to determine the most appropriate screening exam schedule for you.

Vulvar cancer care at Mayo Clinic

Sept. 08, 2022

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