Vulval Cancer

What is Vulval Cancer?

Vulval cancer is skin cancer that develops around the opening of a woman's vagina.

Vulval cancer is rare in women under the age of 40 years.  You can lower your risk of developing this type of cancer by having the HPV vaccination.  If you notice a persistent lump, ulcer or bleeding from your vulva, see your doctor straight away.

How can I reduce my risk of Vulval Cancer?

  • Practice safe sex at all times and at all stages of your life
  • Protect yourself or your children from HPV by being immunised
  • If you smoke, quit!
  • See your GP if you have vulval itchiness, lumps or ulcers

What causes vulval cancer?

The most common cause of vulval cancer is infection with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).  HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that causes most cases of cervical cancer and is responsible for about 50% of vulval cancers.

Practicing safe sex by using condoms can help prevent the spread of HPV.  However, the best way to prevent HPV infection is to be immunised against it before you become sexually active.  A vaccination is available in New Zealand to boys and girls.

Other causes of vulval cancer:

  • Immune deficiency - our immune system is designed to prevent infection and stop cancer.  People who have a weak or deficient immune system are more prone to vulval cancer.  Some of the more common causes of immune deficiency are medical treatment with steroids, organ transplantation, treatment for another type of cancer and HIV.
  • Smoking weakens the immune system and increases the risks of many different cancers.
  • Lichen sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that causes irritation, swelling and redness.  It can occur in any area of skin but usually on the labia in women.  The condition can usually be well controlled but it does increase the risk of vulval cancer, especially if it is not treated.
  • Melanoma - although vulval skin cancer due to sun exposure is rare, melanoma can occur in the vulva.

What are the symptoms of Vulval Cancer?

The most common symptoms of vulval cancer are a lump, irritation or an ulcer.  These can be caused by other problems, such as lichen sclerosis, recurrent thrush or herpes infection, but you should still see your GP.  Even if the problem is not cancer there are treatments for all these conditions that can improve your quality of life.

How is Vulval Cancer diagnosed?

See your doctor if you notice a lump that won't go away, or an ulcer or unusual bleeding (ie, not your regular period) from your vulva.  Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and will examine the area to decide if further investigations or a referral to a specialist is required.

The main way of diagnosing vulval cancer is by taking a tiny skin biopsy of the affected area.  This can be performed under local anaesthetic.

How is Vulval Cancer treated?

Treatment of vulval cancer will depend on what stage the cancer is at.  All cancers usually start in one small localised area of the body and then spread.  Usually, it spreads first to the lymph glands nearby and then to distant parts of the body.  

The aim of any cancer treatment is to remove the cancer BEFORE it has spread.

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