If you are an older woman (65 years and up), or have been infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) you could be at risk for developing a very rare gynecologic cancer. Vulvar cancer forms on a woman’s external genitalia (vulva), and usually grows slowly over several years.
The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia. Symptoms of vulvar cancer may include bleeding between periods, a mass in the vulva, and pain or itching in the vulva that doesn’t go away. The condition may begin with precancerous tissue in the vulva, but not all precancerous tissue will turn into cancer.
If you suspect you have vulvar cancer, it is important to discuss it with your doctor to assure the best possible prognosis. When found early, vulvar cancer can be highly treatable. Some questions you may want to ask are:
- What kinds of tests do I need? The doctor will do a physical exam, or if an abnormality is suspected, your doctor may use a special lens to view the vulva and make a determination status. If the doctor finds a suspicious area of skin, a biopsy will be performed by numbing the area with a local anesthetic and a scalpel or other cutting tool to remove a sample of the skin. Your doctor also may use other forms of testing such as X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- What type of vulvar cancer do I have? There are two different types of vulvar cancer:
•Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma – begins in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vulva. This is the most common type of vulvar cancer.
•Vulvar melanoma – begins in the pigment-producing cells found in the skin of the vulva.
- What causes vulvar cancer? In addition to old age, and being exposed to HPV, other risk factors include smoking, HIV exposure, and having a history of skin condition or precancerous cells in the vulva (vulvar dystrophy).
- Which treatments are available? After the proper staging (determining the extent of the cancer), options for treatment your doctor may consider, depending on your particular case, could include surgery (most common), laser therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Patients may also decide to take part in a clinical trial (new treatment in research status).
- Will I have to stop working? Some treatments may require you to take time off work. You may need to discuss this with your employer when the whole picture of your condition and treatment is determined.
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together? If you have other health conditions, you will need to discuss with your doctor options particular to your case.
- Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover seeing a specialist? Should I get a second opinion? Be your own best advocate! If you want a second opinion, ask for one. Many doctors welcome a second opinion contrary to what you might think. Many insurance companies may cover additional testing performed by a different doctor if your doctor requests it. Some insurance companies even require a second opinion. The short delay taken in getting all the information to allow you to feel more confident and in control of your health in most cases will not be detrimental to your treatment.
- Is there any research I can do on my own and what sources would you recommend? A cancer diagnosis can be scary, frustrating, and depressing. Your doctors can suggest their favorite reputable web sites and support groups for obtaining more information and helping you cope with vulvar cancer.
This information is not meant to be a replacement for talking with your doctor. Talk with your team of doctors to get the full picture for your particular case.
www.mayoclinic.com Vulvar Cancer
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus Vulvar Cancer
Do you have a question about cancer? Check out EmpowHER’s cancer page. Sign-up, post a question, share your story, connect with other women in our community and feel EmpowHERed!
Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.