Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(7):1276

What is vulvar cancer?

The vulva is the skin and fatty tissue between the upper thighs of women, from the area of the anus to about an inch below the pubic hairline. Cancer of the vulva most often affects the two skin folds (or lips) around the vagina, known as the labia.

Vulvar cancer is not very common. However, it is very serious because it can affect a woman's sexual functioning. It can make sex painful and difficult. This makes some women feel sad and worthless. If found early, vulvar cancer has a high cure rate and the treatment options involve less surgery.

Who is affected?

Vulvar cancer most often affects women 65 to 75 years of age. However, it can also occur in women 40 years of age or younger. Vulvar cancer may be related to genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). If you have genital warts, your doctor should watch you closely for vulvar cancer.

What are the signs of vulvar cancer?

Tell your doctor if you have any of these warning signs of vulvar cancer:

  • Vulvar itching that lasts more than one month

  • A cut or sore on the vulva that won't heal

  • A lump or mass on the vulva

  • Vulvar pain

  • Bleeding from the vulva (different from your usual monthly bleeding)

  • Burning in the area that lasts even after your doctor has treated the burning

  • Any change in size, color, or texture of a birthmark or mole in the vulvar area

How is vulvar cancer diagnosed?

If your doctor finds an abnormal area on the vulva, he or she may want to take a small piece of skin to look at under the microscope. This procedure can be done in the doctor's office. It is called a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to find out if you have vulvar cancer.

How is vulvar cancer treated?

Vulvar cancer is usually treated with surgery. The type of surgery depends on the size, depth, and spread of the cancer. Your doctor will review all the options for surgery and the pros and cons of each option. Some people may also need radiation therapy.

When vulvar cancer is found and treated early, the cure rate is over 90 percent. The key to a cure is to tell your doctor about any warning signs early and to have a biopsy right away.

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