Vulvar cancer

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Vulvar cancer, a malignant invasive growth in the vulva, accounts for about 5% of all gynecological cancers and typically affects women in later life. Vulvar carcinoma is separated from vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN), a non-invasive lesion of the epithelium that can progress via carcinoma-in-situ to squamous cell cancer, and from Paget disease of the vulva. Five year survival rates in the United States are around 70%.[1]

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2014, there was an estimated 4,850 new cases and 1,030 deaths from the disease.[2]


Squamous cell carcinoma[edit]

The vast majority of vulvar cancer (approximately 90%)[3] is squamous cell carcinoma, which originates from the epidermis of the vulvar tissue. Carcinoma-in-situ is a precursor stage of squamous cell cancer prior to invading through the basement membrane. Most lesions originate in the labia, primarily the labia majora. Other areas affected are the clitoris, and fourchette, and the local glands. While the lesion is more common with advancing age, younger women who have risk factors (v.i.) may also be affected. In the elderly treatment may be complicated by the interference of other medical conditions.

Squamous lesions tend to be unifocal, growing with local extension, and spreading via the local lymph system. The lymphatic drainage of the labia proceeds to the upper vulva and mons, then to the inguinal and femoral nodes with both superficial and deep lymph nodes. The last deep femoral node is called the Cloquet’s node; spread beyond this node affects the lymph nodes of the pelvis. The tumor may also invade adjacent organs such as the vagina, urethra, and rectum and spread via their lymphatics.

A verrucous carcinoma of the vulva is a subtype of the squamous cell cancer and tend to appear as a slowly growing wart.


About 5% of vulvar malignancy is caused by melanoma of the vulva. Such melanoma behaves like melanoma in other locations and may affect a much younger population. Contrary to squamous carcinoma, melanoma has a high risk of metastasis.

Basal cell carcinoma[edit]

Basal cell carcinoma affects about 1-2% of vulvar cancer is a slowly growing lesion and affects the elderly. Its behavior is similar to basal cell carcinoma in other locations that is it tends to grow locally with a low potential of deep invasion or metastasis

Other lesions[edit]

Vulvar cancer can be caused by other lesions such as adenocarcinoma or sarcoma.

Signs and Symptoms[edit]

Typically a lesion is present in form of a lump or ulceration, often associated with itching, irritation, sometimes local bleeding and discharge. Also dysuria, dyspareunia and pain may be noted. Because of modesty or embarrassment, symptoms may not be heeded in a timely fashion. Melanomas tend to display the typical dark discoloration. Adenocarcinoma can arise from the Bartholin gland and results in a lump that may be quite painful.


The etiology of the cancer is unclear; however, some condition such as condyloma or squamous dysplasias may have preceded the cancer. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is suspected to be a possible risk factor in the etiology of vulvar cancer. Patients infected with HIV tend to be more susceptible to vulvar malignancy. Also, smokers tend to be at higher risk.


Examination of the vulva is part of the gynecologic evaluation and may reveal ulceration, a lump, or a mass. A suspicious lesion needs to undergo a biopsy that generally can be performed in an office setting under local anesthesia. Small lesion can be excised under local anesthesia. Examination of the vulva should include a thorough inspection of the perineal area, including areas around the clitoris and urethra. Palpation of the Bartholin's glands should be performed as well.[4] Supplemental evaluation may include a chest X-ray, an IVP, cystoscopy and proctoscopy, as well as blood counts and metabolic assessment.

Differential diagnosis[edit]

Other neoplastic lesions that need to be considered in the differential diagnosis are Paget disease of the vulva and VIN. Non-neoplastic vulvar disease includes lichen sclerosus, squamous cell hyperplasia, and vulvar vestibulitis. Infectious disease lesions can be caused by a number of diseases including herpes genitalis, human papillomavirus, syphilis, chancroid, granuloma inguinale, and lymphogranuloma venereum.


Preclinical staging has been supplemented by anatomical staging since 1988. FIGO’s revised staging TNM classification system uses criteria of tumor size (T), involvement of lymph nodes (N), and metastasis (M). Stage I and stage II describe the early stage of the cancer that still appears to be confined to the site of origin, stage III defines less or more extensive extensions to neighboring tissue and unilateral inguinal lymph nodes, while stage IV indicates metastatic disease to inguinal nodes bilaterally or distant metastases.[5] Illustrations showing stages of vulvar cancer


Staging and treatment are generally handled by an oncologist familiar with gynecologic cancer. The extent of the surgery is dictated by the anatomical staging.[5] Surgery is a mainstay of therapy and usually accomplished by use of a radical vulvectomy, removal of vulvar tissue as well as the removal of as inguinal and femoral lymph nodes as possible (known as complete inguinofemoral lymphadenectomy (IFL)). Complications of such surgery include wound infection, sexual dysfunction, edema and thrombosis, as well as lymphedema secondary to dissected lymph nodes.[6]

Sentinel lymph node (SLN) dissection is the identification of the main lymph node/s draining the tumor, with the aim of not dissecting more nodes than necessary, thereby decreasing the risk of adverse effects. Examination of lymph nodes may use technetium(99m)-labeled nano-colloid, or a combination of technetium and 1% isosulfan blue dye, wherein the combination may reduce the number of women with "'missed"' groin node metastases compared with technetium only.[6]

Diagram of the incisions made in a vulvectomy, a treatment for vulvar cancer.

Surgery is significantly more extensive when vulvar cancer has spread to adjacent organs such as urethra, vagina, and rectum. In cases of early vulvar carcinoma the surgery may be less radical and disfiguring and consist of wide excision or a simple vulvectomy.

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are usually not a primary choice of therapy but may be used in selected cases of advanced vulvar cancer.

Women with vulvar cancer should not have routine surveillance imaging to monitor the cancer unless new symptoms appear or tumor markers begin rising.[7] Imaging without these indications is discouraged because it is unlikely to detect a recurrence, improve survival, and because it has its own costs and side effects.[7]


The prognosis of vulvar cancer shows overall about a 75% five-year survival rate, but, of course, individually affected by many factors, notably stage and type of the lesion and age and general medical health. Five-year survival is down to about 20% when pelvic lymph nodes are involved but better than 90% for patients with stage I lesions. Thus early diagnosis is imperative.


  1. ^ "SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Vulvar Cancer". NCI. Retrieved 18 June 2014. 
  2. ^ "American Cancer Society". Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  3. ^ "Vulvar Cancer - October 1, 2002 - American Family Physician". Retrieved 2010-03-06. 
  4. ^ "Vulvar Cancer". Gynecologic Neoplasms. Armenian Health Network, 2005. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  5. ^ a b International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (FIGO) (2000). "Staging classification and clinical practice guidelines of gynaecologic cancers". Archived from the original on 2006-04-23. Retrieved 2006-10-13. 
  6. ^ a b Lawrie, Theresa A; Patel, Amit; Martin-Hirsch, Pierre PL; Bryant, Andrew; Ratnavelu, Nithya DG; Naik, Raj; Ralte, Angela; Patel, Amit (2014). "Sentinel node assessment for diagnosis of groin lymph node involvement in vulval cancer". doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010409.pub2. 
  7. ^ a b Society of Gynecologic Oncology (February 2014), Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question, Choosing Wisely: an initiative of the ABIM Foundation (Society of Gynecologic Oncology), retrieved 19 February 2013 

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