What is Vulvar Cancer?

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Cancer of the vulva, or external female genitalia, includes the clitoris, vaginal lips (labia) and the opening to the vagina. According to data collected by the National Cancer Institute, the estimated number of new cases of vulvar cancer in 2019 will be 6,070, with 1,280 of those diagnoses resulting in death. Vulvar cancer accounts for about 6% of cancers of the female reproductive organs and 0.7% of all cancers in women. Vulvar cancer is less common than many of the gynecologic cancers and typically occurs in older women over the age of 65.

The most common types of vulvar cancer include:

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

Our approach to vulvar cancer

At Roswell Park, we treat all gynecologic cancers with the same level of consideration, whether they are common and highly treatable or extremely rare and aggressive. Vulvar cancer often presents with seemingly benign symptoms in the early stages, so it may be mistaken for other conditions until it has become highly invasive. Thus, being familiar with the early signs of disease as well as the risk factors associated with vulvar cancer allow us to be vigilant in its early detection.

Vulvar cancer symptoms

The symptoms of vulvar cancer may be mistaken for other less serious conditions so it’s important to be evaluated by your physician if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed below for an extended period:

  • Persistent itching
  • Pain and tenderness
  • Bleeding not associated with menstruation
  • Skin changes, such as color changes or thickening
  • A lump, wart-like bumps or an open sore (ulcer)

Vulvar Melanoma

In cases of vulvar melanoma, the signs of disease are like those of most other melanomas and may include a darkly pigmented growth or a change in a mole that has been present for years. Refer to the ABCDE's for identifying skin cancer to determine whether a mole is normal or malignant:

  • Asymmetry: The shape of one half does not match the other.
  • Border: The edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
  • Color: The color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be seen.
  • Diameter: There is a change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil (1/4 inch or 5 millimeters).
  • Evolving:  The spot is changing in size, color and shape.

Signs of melanoma