Similar in Appearance to Melanomas
Usually diagnosed in older women, vulvar cancer has been detected in women in their 30s and 40s as well. There are about 4,000 new cases of vulvar cancer each year in the United States.
More than 95% of vulvar cancers arise from the squamous epithelium with the remainder mostly melanomas. The cause of squamous cancer of the vulva is unknown but there is a weak association with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
Vulvar melanoma is no different from melanomas that occur elsewhere on the body. They are characteristically black in color, but there are amelanotic melanomas that have no color. These can be confused with the usual squamous cell cancer.
Vulvar cancer symptoms include vulvar itching, bleeding, vulvar irritation, increasing pain with intercourse, and new pigmentation.
Premalignant Vulvar Cancer
The most important point about pre-malignant vulvar changes is that there can be a long delay in diagnosis. Often these women are not examined properly or the examiner is unfamiliar with this condition and prescribes yet another course of cream, salve, or ointment. Usually the condition is fully visible and simply needs to be biopsied to establish the diagnosis.
The pre-malignant phase of vulvar squamous cell cancer has several different names: carcinoma-in-situ, vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia grade III, (VIN III), severe dysplasia and Bowen’s disease. This condition is diagnosed by tissue biopsy and is characterized by a disorder of maturation of the squamous epithelium (see Dysplasia). It is usually symptomatic with itching and burning and can be present for years. It is usually misdiagnosed as a yeast infection and a multitude of anti-fungal agents will have been prescribed, none of which will have been effective. It is easy to see on examination and will appear as a raised red, white or pigmented patch. A simple biopsy will confirm the diagnosis.
It is best treated by excision or sometimes by laser evaporation. If a large area is involved and must be removed, then a skin graft can be applied. These pre-malignant conditions may recur after treatment so continued follow up is a necessity.
Another condition that can occur on the vulva and also cause itching and soreness is called lichen sclerosis. It is not truly a pre-malignant change, but an atrophy of the skin. It will not be improved by anti-yeast medications. It can be diagnosed by biopsy. These two conditions, lichen sclerosis and VIN III, can be present for years and are misdiagnosed as yeast infections.
Invasive Vulvar Cancer
Squamous cell cancer of the vulva usually causes pain, soreness and itching. There is usually an obvious growth on the skin or an ulcerated area. Diagnosis is by simple biopsy.
These cancers are usually slow growing and do not spread early. When they do spread it is usually by way of the lymph nodes. The regional lymph nodes are located at the top of the thigh in the groin area.
Vulvar cancers are staged by a combination of examination and surgery.
Vulvar cancers are usually treated by surgery with a radical excision of the cancer and possible removal of the regional lymph nodes. If the cancer is clearly on only one side and small then only that one side may need to be removed.
Radical excision means that there must be a good margin of uninvolved tissue removed with the cancer. Usually an acceptable margin is about two centimeters. This will result in some disfigurement if the cancer is larger than approximately two centimeters in size.
Large cancers may also require some sort of plastic surgery technique to close the space left after removal of the tumor.
Complications of surgery are prolonged healing and sometimes a collection of fluid in the groin where the lymph nodes were removed. There may also be leg swelling.
If the cancer is very large, a primary treatment with radiation may help the patient avoid a radical resection — removal of the anus, rectum or urethra.
If there is cancer in the lymph nodes then the groin as well as the pelvic lymph nodes may be irradiated upon recovery from surgery.
Often when these cancers are being irradiated, chemotherapy will also be given to increase the effects of the radiation.