Vulvar Cancer – Foundation for Women's Cancer
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Vulvar Cancer

This section will take you through the basics of what you need to know about vulvar cancer. It will introduce you to the people who may be part of your treatment team. Also, it will identify the different types of treatments for vulvar cancer. Hopefully, this information will help prepare you to talk with your treatment team and to feel more confident about your treatment plan.

Vulvar cancer overview

Cancer of the vulva is a rare tumor with the most recent cancer statistics reporting that approximately 5,000 women in the U.S. are afflicted annually. The vulva includes the inner and outer lips of the vagina, the clitoris, the opening of the vagina and its glands.

Vulvar cancer is highly curable if detected at an early stage; however, treatment can have significant adverse effects on body image, sexual function, as well as bladder and rectal function. Lower extremity lymphedema, a form of chronic swelling which results from the disruption of lymphatic drainage in the groin, is a long-term complication and is, for the most part, irreversible.

Protection from infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), including HPV vaccination, reduces the risk of vulvar cancer. Examination of the vulva for changes by a woman at home or by her gynecologist during her annual pelvic examination can lead to the detection of preinvasive disease or early vulvar cancer. Suspicious or unexplained changes on the vulva should be biopsied.

Vulvar cancer symptoms

Symptoms or signs of pre-cancer and cancer include:

  • Itching that will not go away
  • Skin that appears lighter or darker than usual; it can be red or pink
  • A bump or lump, which could be red, pink or white, and could have a wart-like or raw surface
  • Pain or burning
  • Bleeding or discharge not related to the normal menstrual period
  • Open sore (especially if it lasts for a month or more)
  • Cauliflower-like growths similar to genital warts
  • Ulcer in the genital area

Medical evaluation and diagnosis

If vulvar cancer is suspected or diagnosed, it is important to seek care first from a gynecologic oncologist—medical doctors with specialized training in treating gynecologic cancers who can manage your care from diagnosis to completion of treatment to surveillance. Use our Seek a Specialist tool to find a gynecologic oncologist in your area.

Seek a Specialist

During your treatment, you will come in contact with many health care professionals—these people make up your treatment team. They will work with each other and you to provide the special care you need. Learn more about your treatment team.

Surgical staging

In general, cancers are divided into categories or stages. For vulvar cancer, the final stage depends on the pathologic review of the surgical specimens from the vulva and regional lymph nodes. Assignment of a stage helps guide therapy or surveillance.

Stage I: The cancer is confined to the vulva or perineum—the area between the anus and the vulva.

Stage II: The cancer has spread to the urethra, anus or vagina.

Stage III: The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes—the presence and extent of lymph node involvement is an important factor in the determining the risk of recurrence.

Stage IV: In addition to spreading to nearby lymph nodes, the cancer has spread to distant body parts.

Vulvar cancer treatment and side effects

Importance of participation in clinical trials

There are many ongoing clinical trials studying new and better ways to treat gynecologic cancers. Many treatment options are available today because women diagnosed with gynecologic cancers were willing to participate in prior clinical trials.

Clinical trials are designed to test some of the newest and most promising treatments for gynecologic cancers. The Foundation for Women’s Cancer partners with NRG Oncology (formerly Gynecologic Oncology Group), part of the National Cancer Institute cooperative group working only on gynecologic cancer clinical trials, and others to make information about current clinical trials available. For more information about clinical trials available for enrollment, visit ClinicalTrials.gov.

Always remember that you are not alone.