Originally published in Issue 1 2006 icon
Want to receive the very latest, hot information on this subject? Click hereJust over 1,000 cases a year are diagnosed in the UK affecting, in three out of four cases, women over 60. VACO says that the youngest woman to contact them was 29, but it is very rare to get vulval cancer so young. It can affect any part of the external female sex organs, although the inner edges of the labia majora and the labia minora are the most common areas for it to develop. It can also involve the clitoris or the Bartholin glands (small glands, one on each side of the vagina) and sometimes affect the perineum.
There is no known cause at the moment, but research is ongoing
There is no known cause at the moment, but research is ongoing. A condition called VIN (vulval intraepithelial neoplasia) can occur in the skin of the vulva. and is linked to infection by some types of wart virus, known as HPV (human papilloma virus).
There are three levels of abnormality - VIN1, VIN2 and VIN3. VIN3 is the most abnormal and, in some women, can develop into cancer of the vulva if left untreated. Almost one-third of vulval cancers develop in women who have VIN. HPV is thought to be responsible for between 30 to 50 per cent of vulval cancers, but more than half of all vulval cancers diagnosed are not related to HPV infection.
HPV is passed from one person to another during sexual activity. There are many different types of HPV but some are considered more high risk than others. HPV types 6 and 11 can infect the female and male genital organs and the anal area, causing visible genital warts. But these types of the virus rarely lead to cancer and are called low-risk viruses. The high risk ones include HPV types 16, 18 and 31.
Women who have certain non-cancerous skin conditions for a long time have an increased risk of developing cancer of the vulva. The conditions, vulval lichen sclerosus and vulval lichen planus, can cause a long-term inflammation of the skin in the vulval area. Almost two-thirds of vulval cancers occur in women who have lichen sclerosus, but only one to two per cent of women who have lichen sclerosus will go on to develop vulval cancer.
Cigarette smoking may increase the risk of developing both VIN and vulval cancer
A rare type of cancer of the vulva called Pagets disease can sometimes be linked with a cancer elsewhere in the pelvic area or the digestive system.
Cigarette smoking may increase the risk of developing both VIN and vulval cancer.
Its important to stress that cancer of the vulva, like other cancers, is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people. Also, it is not caused by an inherited faulty gene, so members of your family are not likely to be at risk of developing it.
The most common symptoms include itching, burning and soreness of the vulva; a lump, swelling or wart-like growth; thickened raised, red white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva, or a sore or ulcerated area; bleeding or a blood-stained vaginal discharge; burning when passing urine or a mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour. Any of these can be a sign of many other conditions, but always get your doctor to check them.
The good news is that vulval cancer is easy to treat and cure at an early stage, with surgery the main treatment, sometimes combined with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. There is also research going on into photodynamic therapy, sentinel lymph node mapping, a HPV test, HPV vaccines and anti-viral creams for VIN. Although some early results look promising, until studies are completed, none of these treatments can be used as standard therapy for this cancer. For information on your Cancer Drugs and chemotherapy click here.
See the links from Carols website www.vaco.co.uk to Cancer Research UK and Cancer Bacups sites for more information on these.