What is vulval cancer?
Vulval cancer is a rare form of cancer known to develop in the vulva. The term vulva is used to describe the outer female sex organs and includes the inner and outer labia. Vulval cancer can develop in any part of the vulva, though most cases start in the inner edges of the labia. Vulval cancer develops very slowly and the cells become abnormal first, which may be described by doctors as pre-cancerous changes. There are different types of vulval cancer but the most common form is squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for more than 90 percent of cases. Around 1,000 women are diagnosed with vulval cancer every year in the UK.
What are the causes of vulval cancer?
Doctors do not know the exact cause of vulval cancer, though certain risk factors are believed to play a function. These include:
- Age: vulval cancer is extremely rare among young females and around 80 percent of cases involve females over the age of 60
- HPV (human papilloma virus) infection
- Vulval skin conditions
- Paget's disease of the vulva: this is a rare condition, which causes abnormal changes in the protective skin cells covering the vulva.
- VIN (vulval intraepithelial neoplasia) this is a pre-cancerous condition, which affects the vulva and can develop into cancer
Symptoms of vulval cancer
Symptoms of vulval cancer include:
- Itchy or sore vulva
- Inflammation or swelling
- The development of wart-like growths or a lump
- Bleeding and vaginal discharge
- A sore or ulcer on the vulva
- Burning sensation and pain when passing urine
These symptoms can often be connected to other health situations and they do not necessarily denote that you have vulval cancer. On the other hand, it is always a good idea to get checked out, so that you can be treated as quickly as possible.
How is vulval cancer diagnosed?
If you believe you have symptoms or you feel unwell you are recommended to visit your GP. Your GP will ask questions about relevant symptoms and also undertake an examination. If they think there is a chance that you have vulval cancer, they will refer you to a doctor of medicine with specialist training in this area for extra tests. A biopsy test will be performed and if cancer is diagnosed more tests will be undertaken to discover if the cancer has impacted on any other areas of the body. These tests may include CT and MRI scans.
How is vulval cancer treated?
Treatment for vulval cancer usually involves surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The type of treatment depends on the stage and grade of cancer and the individual's general health. Early stage cancers are usually treated with surgery and advanced stage cancers may be treated with surgery first, but if this is not possible intensive radiotherapy may be used prior to surgery.
What is the outlook for vulval cancer?
The outlook for vulval cancer weighs heavily on the stage of cancer, with early diagnosis improving chances of survival considerably. Statistics show that 58 percent of women diagnosed with vulval cancer go on for at least 5 years after initial diagnosis.
Living with vulval cancer
Living with vulval cancer is very hard. After your diagnosis it may take you a long time to accept the reality of the situation and you may struggle to cope with an array of emotions. Your care team will be available to handle all aspects of your medical care, but they will also be able to help you with emotional and practical issues. However, if you would like someone to talk to in an informal manner, you can speak to one of the UK cancer charities.