According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), vulvar cancer is a rare disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the vulva. The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia. In the United States, the American Cancer Society says vulvar cancer accounts for about four percent of cancers of the female reproductive organs.
Vulvar cancer most often affects the outer vaginal lips reports the Cleveland Clinic. Less often, cancer affects the inner vaginal lips or the clitoris.
Both the Mayo Clinic and American Cancer Society say the exact cause of vulvar cancer is unknown, but certain factors appear to increase the risk. These include smoking; increasing age; being exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV); being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); a history of cervical cancer or precancerous conditions of the vulva like vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia; or having a skin condition, like lichen sclerosus.
NCI says vulvar cancer doesn’t often cause early symptoms. But they can include a lump in the vulva; persistent itching in the vulvar area; bleeding unrelated to menstruation and tenderness in the vulvar area.
There are four standard treatments for vulvar cancer. One is laser therapy which uses laser beams to kill cancer cells.
Surgery is a second. There are several surgical procedures according to the Cleveland Clinic. Wide local excision removes the cancer and some of the normal tissue around it. Radical local excision removes the cancer and a large amount of normal tissue around it.
Vulvectomy removes all or part of the vulva. A skinning vulvectomy removes the top layer of vulvar skin where the cancer is found. A simple vulvectomy removes the entire vulva.
A modified radical vulvectomy removes part of the vulva containing cancer and some of the normal tissue around it. With a radical vulvectomy¸ the entire vulva, including the clitoris, and nearby tissue are removed.
A pelvic exenteration is a more extensive surgery that is used if the cancer has spread. This may remove the lower colon, rectum, bladder, cervix, vagina, ovaries, and/or nearby lymph nodes.
The Mayo Clinic says a third option is radiation therapy in which high-powered energy beams kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy for vulvar cancer is usually administered by a machine that moves around the body and directs radiation to precise points on the skin.
The fourth is chemotherapy which uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. The Cleveland Clinic says systemic chemotherapy is administered orally or intravenously so the drugs enter the bloodstream and reach cancer cells throughout the body. Regional chemotherapy places drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, a body cavity such as the abdomen, or onto the skin.
Vulvar Cancer. MayoClinic.com by Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Web 7 Sept 2011.
Vulvar Cancer. Cancer.org by American Cancer Society, Inc. Web 7 Sept 2011.
Vulvar Cancer. ClevelandClinic.com by the Cleveland Clinic. Web 7 Sept 2011.
Vulvar Cancer. Cancer.gov by the National Cancer Institute. Web 7 Sept 2011.
Reviewed September 16, 2011
by MIchele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith