Vulvar and vaginal cancers are rare types of gynecologic cancer, but all women are at risk. Here’s what you need to know about vulvar and vaginal cancer – including how to screen for and prevent it.

Types of Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

Vulvar and vaginal cancers form in the vulva or vagina, respectively. They are relatively rare, accounting for just 8% of all gynecologic cancers in women. However, all women are at risk for them.

The main types of vulvar and vaginal cancer are:

  • Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer starts in the cells that line the vulva. Most vulvar cancers are of this type.
  • Vulvar melanoma. This cancer starts in the pigment-producing cells of the vulva.
  • Vaginal squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer starts in the cells that line the vagina. This is the most common type of vaginal cancer.
  • Vaginal adenocarcinoma. This cancer begins in the glandular cells of the vagina.
  • Vaginal melanoma. This cancer starts in the pigment-producing cells of the vagina.
  • Vaginal sarcoma. This cancer starts in the connective tissue or muscle cells of the vagina.

Signs and Symptoms of Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

Many vaginal cancers do not cause symptoms in their early stages. But women may experience:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • A change in bathroom habits, including constipation, changes in frequency, or blood in stool
  • Pain in your pelvis, especially when urinating or during sex

Vulvar cancer often causes symptoms, even in its early stages. These include:

  • Itching, burning, or bleeding of the vulva
  • Changes in color or skin texture of the vulva
  • Sores, lumps, or ulcers on the vulva
  • Pain in your pelvis, especially when urinating or during sex

If you experience symptoms that are not normal for you and persist longer than two weeks, see your doctor.

Risk Factors for and Causes of Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

While all women are at risk for vulvar and vaginal cancers, some factors may increase your risk. These include:

  • Long-term human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Having cervical precancer or cervical cancer
  • Having vulvar or vaginal precancer
  • Being immunocompromised, for example, being HIV positive
  • Being a smoker
  • Age – the average age of diagnosis is 65
  • Experiencing ongoing itching or burning of the vulva

If you fall into any of these categories, your doctor might recommend more frequent exams.

Screenings and Prevention for Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

You can reduce your risk of vulvar or vaginal cancers by being vaccinated against HPV. The HPV vaccine protects you against the types of HPV that can cause many cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers. Note that the vaccine is preventive, not curative. For this reason, it tends to be given to younger women or those without exposure to HPV.

There is no simple way to test for vulvar or vaginal cancer in asymptomatic women, so being mindful of any signs and symptoms is vital. So is attending your routine checkups. Your physician can help you work through any possible symptoms or changes and reduce the likelihood of a diagnosis being overlooked or delayed. They can also refer you to a gynecologic oncologist if they detect any suspicious signs or symptoms. Remember, early diagnosis saves lives.

If you’re experiencing possible signs or symptoms of vulvar or vaginal cancer, or are looking for a gynecologic oncologist in Albuquerque, NM, call Southwest Women’s Oncology to make your appointment today.

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