Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that occurs on the outer surface area of the female genitalia. The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia.
Vulvar cancer commonly forms as a lump or sore on the vulva that often causes itching. Though it can occur at any age, vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older women.
Vulvar cancer treatment usually involves surgery to remove the cancer and a small amount of surrounding healthy tissue. Sometimes vulvar cancer surgery requires removing the entire vulva. The earlier vulvar cancer is diagnosed, the less likely an extensive surgery is needed for treatment.
It’s not clear what causes vulvar cancer. In general, doctors know that cancer begins when a cell develops mutations in its DNA. The mutations allow the cell to grow and divide rapidly. The cell and its offspring go on living when other normal cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that may be cancerous, invading nearby tissue and spreading to other parts of the body.
Types of vulvar cancer
The type of cell in which vulvar cancer begins helps your doctor plan the most effective treatment plan. The most common types of vulvar cancer include:
- Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer begins in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vulva. Most vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Vulvar melanoma. This cancer begins in the pigment-producing cells found in the skin of the vulva.
Signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:
- Itching that doesn’t go away
- Pain and tenderness
- Bleeding that isn’t from menstruation
- Skin changes, such as color changes or thickening
- A lump, wart-like bumps or an open sore (ulcer)
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or gynecologist if you experience any vulvar signs or symptoms that worry you, such as:
- Abnormal bleeding