Vulvar cancer is a very rare form of the disease found in women’s external genitals, called the vulva. It is responsible for approximately 4% of the genital cancers diagnosed in women, usually affecting patients over 60. Approximately 4,300 new cases of vulvar cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2011.
Vulvar Cancer Signs & Symptoms
The disease often appears in the form of a lump or lesion. Sometimes patients experience itching, irritation, bleeding, or generalized pain. Patients who show any of these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately; many women let their symptoms go untreated out of modesty or embarrassment.
Vulvar Cancer Diagnosis
A Pap smear can detect vulvar cancer during the woman’s annual gynecological exam. Squamous cell carcinoma, which appears as thin, flat cells, is diagnosed in approximately 90% of patients. Melanoma comprises approximately 5% of patients diagnosed.
Vulvar Cancer Treatment
Four standard methods of treatment are used for vulvar cancer:
- Laser therapy: In this method, a pinpoint of concentrated light is aimed at the cancerous mass to kill the cells.
- Surgery: Some or all of the mass may be removed depending on the size, location, and stage. Surgery can be risky due to the delicate nature of the mass’s location—the goal of the procedure is to remove the malignant cells without reducing the woman’s sexual function.
- Radiation: Depending on the type and stage of cancer, internal or external radiation may be used. Internal radiation uses a radioactive substance in a needle, wire, catheter, or other device focused directly on or near the mass. External radiation uses a machine to inject radiation into the body to kill the mass.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be administered in medicinal form, injected through a vein or muscle, or inserted directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or other body cavity (such as the abdomen). A direct insertion is called regional chemotherapy.
Vulvar Cancer Outlook
A patient’s prognosis depends on the size, location, and stage of the tumor. Medical history and whether the cancer is a new diagnosis or recurrence are also important factors in the patient’s recovery.