Vulvar cancer is usually reported as a malignant outgrowth on the outer side of vulva, a genital organ of females. Vulva is anatomically the layer of skin that surrounds the vagina, urethra, labia and clitoris. Frequently vulvar cancer involves lumping and soreness of vulva that may result in itching or discomfort. Older women are at much higher risk of developing vulvar cancer; however this cancer is independent of age factor.
Vulvar Cancer Symptoms
Most of the women who develop vulvar cancer experience no specific symptoms; however they may frequently report continuous itching or irritation in the vulvar region which is often associated with the appearance of thick patch of skin as compared to the surrounding skin.
Given below are some symptoms that women with invasive vulvar cancer may experience:
- A bump that is white or pink in color with wart-like or raw surface
- A rough white area
- Continuous itching
- Burning sensation and pain while urination
- Discharge and bleeding not related to periods
- Ulcer or open sore that stays longer than a month
Women with advanced stages of vulvar cancer may observe an outgrowth similar to a genital wart.
Note: Seek immediate medical help if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Abnormal bleeding
Causes and Risk Factors of Vulvar Cancer
The exact cause of vulvar cancer remains unknown, however, generally the primary pathophysiological event responsible for tumor formation is mutation in DNA that leads to abnormally rapid division of cells and expanded life span of tumorous tissue. In long standing or poorly managed cases, tumor cells may invade the surrounding normal tissue to cause disturbing symptoms.
Listed below are the risk factors associated with vulvar cancer:
- Age: Postmenopausal women are at much higher risk compared to women in reproductive age group, yet cases brought to clinical practice in young females increasing.
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Having multiple sex partners may also put you at risk
- Not having children may yet be another contributing risk factor
- Severe itching in the vulva
- Having warts in the genital area
- A positive personal or family history of vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia
- Lichen sclerosis
Diagnosis of Vulvar Cancer
Listed below are some diagnostic methods that are commonly employed for vulvar cancer:
- Collecting medical history of the patient
- Conducting physical examination
- Use of colposcope to observe the vulva and the lesions present on it
- Use of scalpel to take biopsy of the sore lump present on the vulva
- Punch biopsy
- Removing a few tissues while the patient is given an anesthetic agent
Treatments of Vulvar Cancer
The most popular and effective treatment for vulvar cancer is surgery. The nature of surgical procedure is dependent upon the position and size of cancer. Small cancers are much easier to remove. Healthcare providers utilize complex surgical approaches to remove large cancers such as vulvectomy, i.e. only some parts of the normal vulvar tissue are removed besides the cancerous part. A radical vulvectomy, however, involves removal of the entire vulva along with clitoris and labia. Skin flaps or skin grafts are mandatory if a lot of skin is removed during the surgery. Frequently, the surgery is performed with the aim of achieving optimum results with very little scarring. Discuss the surgical options with your doctor.
2. Radiation Therapy
It involves exposing the tumor mass to high energy beams (such as X-rays) to destroy the cancer cells. Radiation therapy is usually performed with the help of highly calculated devices/ machines that are designed to emit rays at the precise locations of the body (thereby securing the normal tissue from radiation-mediated harm). This therapy is also employed to shrink down the vulvar cancers that are large in size so that the surgery becomes effective and easier. A combination of radio therapy and chemotherapy is also used to make the cancer cells more prone to destruction.
Chemotherapy comprises of drugs that are administered via oral or parenteral routes. However in case of women with advanced stages of vulvar cancer, chemotherapy may not turn out to be an effective treatment.
Once you're done with the treatment of vulvar cancer, your doctor may call you for follow-ups time to time to look out for any recurrence of cancer. Mostly the doctors prefer a follow-up of 2-4 times per year.
Living With Vulvar Cancer
1. Know Your Cancer
You must know everything about your cancer. Get a firm grasp on the symptoms, causes and treatment protocol required for your condition. Be well acknowledged so it wouldn’t be tough to ask around questions from your healthcare provider.
2. Find Someone to Talk With
Needless to say that a vulvar cancer patient requires a lot of guidance, love and support from people around.Do not hesitate to share your thoughts and feelings with people who you trust, it can be your family, spiritual advisors, therapist, friends or other cancer survivors. There are a number of non-government and government organizations that serve as platforms to connect cancer patients, survivors and volunteers such as the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network, the Women Cancer Network and American Cancer Society besides online forums.
3. Don’t Be Scared Of Physical Intimacy
Changes or illness involving a genital area may affect your confidence and desire to engage in sexual contact, but do not let your feelings affect your natural needs. If you need time or support, speak to your partner or a therapist to learn more about the coping. You should also remember that sexuality can be expressed in a number of mediums such as touching, caressing, hugging, etc.
Here is a video that you may find very helpful to learn about the vulvar cancer: