Vulvar cancer appears as a lesion or ulcer on the external genitalia, or vulva. Cancer of the vulva is rare. It most often occurs in women older than age 60 and may often be found during periodic pelvic exams after menopause.
Most vulvar cancers are a type of skin cancer. But occasionally, a tumor in the vulva may arise from glandular structures in that part of the body. When vulvar cancer is detected early, it is highly curable. The overall five-year survival rate when the lymph nodes are not involved is 90 percent.
Regular gynecologic exams, no matter what your age, help ensure that vulvar cancer will be detected early. Early diagnosis increases your chances of a cure, and it means less disfiguring surgery as well.
Your physician will recommend a biopsy of any lesions that look like they could be cancerous. Tissue samples from your cancer will be removed either in the clinic or during surgery, and examined by a pathologist. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center has a dedicated pathologist who only works with gynecologic cancer patients.
Vulvar cancer is cancer of the external female sexual organs. Most often, it is a type of skin cancer. It is a fairly rare disease, affecting only about one-half of one percent of all American women who are diagnosed with cancer each year. If detected early, before it has spread to the lymph nodes, the chances of a cure are quite high, 90 percent or better.
Stage 0 – Pre-cancerous stage, also known as dysplasia
Stage I - Cancer is local to the vulva, less than 2cm (1 inch) in size
Stage II – Cancer is local to the vulvar, greater than 2cm (1 inch) in size
Stage III – Cancer has spead to local tissues, such as the urethra or vagina, or is in lymph nodes
Stage IV – Cancer has spread to lymph nodes in both groins, or has spread distantly, such as to the lungs
The causes of the type of vulvar cancer that affects older women (ages 70s to 90s) is unknown. Diabetes and chronic vulvar irritation are possible risk factors.
Vulvar cancer related to HPV (the same virus that causes cervical cancer) is on the rise among younger (30s to 60s) American women and accounts for about half of all cases of vulvar cancer.
People who smoke, are immune-suppressed or have a history of abnormal Pap smears are at risk for this type of vulvar cancer. About 70 to 80 percent of the younger people diagnosed with vulvar cancer are smokers. Some women report itching, pain, or bleeding, while others say they have no symptoms.
There are many resources online for learning about your disease. We’ve compiled a list of trusted sources to help you get started.
If you or your caregiver are seeking additional information or resources, Fred Hutch Patient and Family Resource Center is available to help connect you with what you need.
American Cancer Society (ACS): Overview of Vulvar Cancer
If you have vulvar cancer or are close to someone who does, knowing what to expect can be helpful. Here you can find out all about vulvar cancer in adults, including risk factors, symptoms and how it's found and treated.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO): Guide to Vulvar Cancer
This is ASCO's Guide to vulvar cancer. Here you can learn more about treatment, the latest research and clinical trials.
National Cancer Institute (NCI): Vulvar Cancer-Patient Version
The NCI is the federal government's principal agency for cancer research and training. Here you can find more information about treatment, research and coping with vulvar cancer.