Vulvar cancer

What is it?

Vulvar cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the genitalia of the female genital tract. It can affect different parts of the vulva, such as the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, and perineum (portion of skin between the vagina and anus).

Carcinoma of the vulva is a rare neoplasm that accounts for approximately 3-5% of female genital tract neoplasms with a higher incidence in women older than 75 years of age. 

Vulvar cancer commonly presents as an ulcerated vulvar nodule or lesion that often causes itching. 

There are several types of vulvar cancer, each with specific characteristics that affect the choice of treatment and the prospects for cure.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most frequent histotype accounting for 85-90% of vulvar malignancies. It develops from the thin, flat (squamous) cells that cover the vulva and can be of 2 types: 

  • keratinizing (found mainly in older women and not related to the presence of Papilloma virus infection); 
  • verrucous (takes on the appearance of a slow-growing wart and generally has a good prognosis). 

In contrast, 2-5% of vulvar cancers are malignant melanomas, that is a type of skin cancer that develops from pigment-producing cells. It presents as a dark mole or pigmented lesion at the level of the external genitalia.

Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that develops from the cells of glands in the vulva, particularly those of the Bartolini, and accounts for 1-3% of vulvar cancers. 

Other rare types of vulvar cancers include sarcoma, a type of cancer that develops from the soft tissues of the vulva such as muscle and connective tissues, and Paget's carcinoma, a very rare form of skin neoplasm.

Causes and risk factors

The main risk factors related to the occurrence of vulvar neoplasia include: 

  • advanced age;
  • papilloma virus infection (it has been estimated that about 40-50% of squamous cell carcinomas of the vulva can be attributed to HPV infection);
  • cigarette smoking;
  • chronic vulvar inflammation (such as Lichen sclerosus or Paget's disease);
  • diseases that cause impaired immune status, e.g., HIV/AIDS, or women who have undergone organ transplantation.

Which are the symptoms?

Symptoms of vulvar cancer may be vague or absent, particularly at an early stage, and may vary by site and extent. The most common symptom is itching, which may or may not be associated with skin lesions on the genital area. Such lesions may appear as growths, bumps, skin discolorations, or ulcerations that can sometimes result in bleeding. 

In some cases, vulvar cancer may cause sharp or dull pain, which may be present constantly or intermittently.

How is it diagnosed?

The diagnostic course begins with the examination during which the physician, in addition to collecting personal and family history and assessing symptoms, will proceed with a complete inspection of the genital and inguinal area and a comprehensive gynecological examination.

If the specialist suspects the presence of a vulvar tumor, a biopsy (taking a few cells to be analyzed under a microscope) of the suspected skin areas may be necessary to establish or rule out with certainty the presence of cancer.

Imaging examinations, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can be used to assess the local extension to the vulvar and inguinal region (inguino-femoral lymph nodes).

It is important to emphasize that early detection and timely management of vulvar cancer are critical to a successful outcome.

How is it treated?

Treatment for vulvar cancer depends on the size and extent of the tumor, the type of cancer, and the stage of the disease. 

Surgery is often the first step in treating vulvar cancer and involves removing the tumor and a portion of surrounding skin and, if indicated, the inguinal-femoral lymph nodes.

Depending on the extent of the tumor, part or all of the vulva and sometimes portions of the urethra, vagina, and anus may need to be removed.

Metastatic disease, in most cases, involves the use of chemotherapy.

Suggested procedures

Where do we treat it?

Within the San Donato Group, you can find Vulvar cancer specialists at these departments:

Are you interested in receiving the treatment?

Contact us and we will take care of you.