Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that occurs on the outer surface of the female genitalia. Vulva is the area of the skin around the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia.
Vulvar cancer is commonly formed as a lump or a vulva sore, which often causes itching. Although it may occur at any age, vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older adults.
Vulvar cancer treatment usually involves surgery to remove cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue around it. Sometimes vulvar cancer surgery requires the removal of the entire vulva. The earlier cancer of the vulva is diagnosed, the less likely a major surgery is needed for treatment.
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Vulvar Cancer Risk Factors
A risk factor is anything that changes a person’s chance of having a disease, such as cancer. Different types of cancer have different risk factors. For example, exposure of skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for a lot of cancers.
There are different types of risk factors. Some of them, like your age or race, can’t be changed. Others may relate to personal choices, such as smoking, drinking, or diet. There are some factors that influence risk more than others. But the risk factors don’t tell us all about it. Having a risk factor, or even a few, does not mean that a person is going to get the disease. Also, having no risk factors doesn’t mean you’re not going to get it, either.
Factors that can increase your risk:
- Increased age. The risk of vulvar cancer increases with age, although it may occur at any age. The average age at diagnosis is 65 years.
- Exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that increases the risk of several cancers, including vulvar and cervical cancers. Many young, sexually active people are exposed to HPV, but most of the infections go away on their own. For some, infection causes cell change and increases the risk of cancer in the future.
- It’s smoking. Smoking increases the risk of developing vulvar cancer.
- Having the immune system weakened. People who take drugs to suppress the immune system, such as those who have undergone organ transplantation and those with conditions that weaken the immune system, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), have an increased risk of vulvar cancer.
- Having a history of vulva precancerous conditions. Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasm is a precancerous condition that increases the risk of vulvar cancer. Most cases of vulvar intraepithelial neoplasm will never develop into cancer, but a small number will continue to develop into invasive vulvar cancer. For this reason, your doctor may recommend treatment for the removal of abnormal cells and periodic follow-up checks.
- Having a skin condition that involves a vulva. Lichen sclerosus, which causes the skin to become thin and itchy, increases the risk of vulvar cancer.
Types of vulvar cancer
- The squamous cell carcinoma of Vulvar. This cancer starts in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vulva. The majority of vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Vulvar melanoma. This cancer begins in the pigment-producing cells found in the vulva skin.
It’s not clear what causes cancer of the vulva.
Doctors generally know that cancer begins when a cell develops changes (mutations) in its DNA. The DNA contains instructions to tell a cell what to do. Mutations tell the cell to grow and divide quickly. The cell and its offspring are still alive when other normal cells die. Accumulating cells form a tumor that may be cancerous, invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
Ask your doctor how often you should undergo pelvic exams. These exams allow your doctor to visually examine your vulva and manually examine your internal reproductive organs to check for abnormalities.
Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for vulvar cancer and other pelvic cancers in order to determine the most appropriate screening exam schedule for you.
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