Vulvar Cancer – Foundation for Women's Cancer

Vulvar Cancer

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2019 Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is a rare type of gynecologic cancer. Major advances recently have been made in the prevention and treatment of this disease. Therefore, it is important to know your options to protect your health.

Prevention Is Possible

Approximately 6,190 new cases of vulvar cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Although there is no way to completely avoid vulvar cancer, you can take steps to significantly reduce your risk. This includes receiving the HPV vaccine as well as identifying and treating precancerous conditions before they progress.

HPV Vaccine

Almost all of us are exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in our lives. It is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. While HPV clears in most people, it can result in a persistent infection in others, especially those with high risk factors such as a suppressed immune system or smoking.

A persistent HPV-related infection can lead to a number of issues, such as vulvar, vaginal, cervical, penile, anal and other cancers. More than half of all vulvar cancer cases are found in younger women and are linked to an infection from HPV.

The HPV vaccine helps minimize the lifetime risk of developing the types of infection that can lead to vulvar cancer and is considered a major breakthrough in cancer prevention. A new version of this vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2017 and is extremely effective in protecting against HPV infection.

Current guidelines recommend that the HPV vaccine be administered to boys and girls at age 11-12 years, before initiating sexual activity. The vaccine had previously been approved for use up to age 26, but the FDA expanded its approval to include women and men ages 26-45 in 2018. 

To learn more information about the HPV vaccine, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The HPV vaccine is considered a major breakthrough in cancer prevention

Early Detection

It is important to note that, although a Pap test screens for cervical cancers and precancers, it does not screen for vulvar cancer. To ensure no early lesions are developing, an annual gynecologic exam is recommended for all women, even those who have had a hysterectomy. An annual exam is particularly important for women with risk factors for vulvar cancer such as smoking and HPV.

Early detection of vulvar cancer is key

Over half of vulvar cancers are caused by HPV infection

HPV vaccine helps minimize lifetime risk of vulvar cancer

New Standard of Care for Early Stage Vulvar Cancer

For patients diagnosed with an early stage of vulvar cancer, treatment has changed dramatically. Sentinel lymph node biopsy has now become the standard of care for managing patients with early stage vulvar cancer.

A sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node (or nodes; sometimes there are more than one) to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. Sentinel lymph node biopsy eliminates the need for full lymph node dissection and the associated side effects.

Clinical Trials Offer Promise

The National Cancer Institute reports that the number of new vulvar cancer cases rose slightly, at a rate of 0.6 percent per year, from 2006-2015. By looking at statistics such as this, researchers can determine where progress is being made and where improvements are needed.

A large collaborative international group completed a 1,700-patient trial in 2018 to evaluate whether vulvar cancer patients can avoid radical surgery and still achieve the best outcomes. Results should be available in 2019.

Another clinical trial is planned by the same international group to determine whether radiation in combination with chemotherapy can replace radical surgery. This trial is scheduled to launch by 2019.

Large trials such as this are an enormous accomplishment, considering the rare nature of vulvar cancer. Learn more about clinical trials and how you may be able to participate in one. 

Treatment for early stage vulvar cancer has changed dramatically

2019 State of Gynecologic Cancers