Cancer of the vulva affects the outer part of a woman’s reproductive system. This area includes the opening of the vagina, labia (vaginal lips), clitoris, and skin and tissue covering the pubic bone. Most often, the cancer occurs on inner edges of vaginal lips.
This cancer is rather rare. Less than 1% of all cancers in women are vulvar cancers, usually in women older than 50 years.
The cause is unknown, but some things can give women greater chances of getting this cancer. These things are longterm inflammation (swelling, redness) of the vulva, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, and prior cervical or vaginal cancer. HPV causes genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Common symptoms may include pain during sex or with urination, long-lasting itching in the vulva region, thickening or lump on the labia, rough white area on the vulva, and blood or discharge that isn’t related to normal menstrual periods.
The health care provider can often see early changes in the vulva during a routine pelvic examination. Because of the examination and symptoms, the health care provider may order a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy involves taking a small piece of tissue for study with a microscope. An instrument called a colposcope may be used to do the biopsy. This tool has magnifying lenses for looking at the vagina and lets the doctor pick the best spot for a biopsy.
If biopsy results show cancer cells, other tests may be done to see if the cancer spread and how far.
Treatment depends on the type and size of cancer and its spread.
For very small cancers that are in only one spot, a laser beam can be used to burn off the top layer of skin that contains the cancer cells.
Surgery called excision or simple partial vulvectomy is often used to remove abnormal cells and some healthy tissue nearby. For large cancers, an operation called a vulvectomy may be needed. In this operation, all or part of the vulva is removed.
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