Vulva cancer | Signs and symptoms

You might not have heard about vulva cancer - it’s one of the rarer forms of the 5 types of gynaecological cancers, but on average, 1,200 cases are diagnosed in the UK each year*.

Here’s what you need to know: the signs, the symptoms, and what to do if you’re worried.

So where exactly is the vulva?

The vulva is the outer part of the female genitals. It includes the opening of the vagina (sometimes called the vestibule), the labia majora (outer lips), the labia minora (inner lips), and the clitoris.

Around the opening of the vagina, there are 2 sets of skin folds. 

Labia minora: The inner set, commonly small and hairless. 

Labia majora: The outer set, larger, with hair on the outer surface. 

The inner and outer labia meet, protecting the vaginal opening and, just above it, is the opening of the urethra (the short tube that carries urine from the bladder). At the front of the vagina, the labia minora meet to form a fold or small hood of skin called the prepuce. The clitoris is beneath the prepuce. 

What is vulval cancer? 

Cancer of the vulva (also known as vulvar cancer) most often affects the inner edges of the labia majora or the labia minora. Vulvar cancer commonly forms as a lump or sore on the vulva that often causes itching. 

What are the most common symptoms?

  • A lasting itch, pain or soreness and thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
  • Open sore or growth visible on the skin
  • Burning pain when you pass urine
  • Vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
  • Lump or swelling in the vulva

These symptoms are more notable if:

They’re not normal for you

They’re persistent

There are repeated episodes

They do not go away

… so be sure to visit your doctor for a check up.

Remember, most women with symptoms like these do not have cancer. But being aware of your symptoms is the first and most important step, because early diagnosis can save lives.

What are the most common risk factors?

The risk of developing vulvar cancer increases with age. 

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is thought to be responsible for four out of 10 vulval cancers. Most women who have HPV infection do not go on to develop vulval cancer. Vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) means there are precancerous changes in the skin of the vulva. In some women VIN develops into vulval cancer. The most common symptom of VIN is a lasting itch that does not get better or go away.

Other risk factors include a weakened immune system, genital herpes infection, smoking and some chronic skin conditions.

What are the treatment options? 

When diagnosed by a specialist, they will offer you a tailored treatment plan for your personal situation. The most common treatments used for vulval cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and sometimes chemotherapy and sometimes a combination of all three. 

Vulval cancer is rare, but because of the lack of awareness of the symptoms and risk factors, we would really love for to share this article with other women of all ages and stages in your life. You may just save a life.

Information sources

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