Cancer of the vulva is rare, with around 1,300 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK. It usually affects older women, and rarely occurs in women younger than 50. Most vulval cancers form via a gradual change in the cells. First, normal cells become abnormal cells which have the potential to develop into cancerous cells. Some of these abnormal cells will go away without treatment. Due to this often slow formation of the cancer it is vital to find these abnormal cells early and have treatment in order to prevent vulval cancer.
In most cases, the cancer first develops in the woman’s labia; symptoms can include a lump, itchiness, pain when passing urine, bleeding and general discomfort in the area. If you have any of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your GP, who will refer you to a specialist if necessary. Vulval cancer is primarily treated through surgical removal of the cancer, although chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy is sometimes used.
The exact cause of vulval cancer is not known, however there are certain factors that can increase your risk:
- Increasing age
- Vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) a condition in which the cells have the potential to become cancerous
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) A sexually transmitted infection that is thought to be linked to vulval cancer as it is present in at least 40% of women with the disease.
- Some skin conditions that affect the vulva e.g. lichen sclerosus
Risk could be reduced by stopping smoking and reducing your potential of picking up an HPV infection.