Vulval cancer affects roughly 1,170 women in the UK each year.
It affects the the area of skin between a woman’s legs which is made up of two outer lips (the labia majora), two inner lips (the labia minora), the clitoris and the Bartholin’s glands.
To help raise awareness of this rare form of cancer, we spoke to experts from The Eve Appeal and Macmillan Cancer Support about the key signs to look out for, plus diagnosis and treatment.
What is it?
Vulval cancer is most commonly found on the labia majora and the labia minora.
While it’s most likely to occur in women over the age of 60, that’s not to say it doesn’t affect younger women. In fact, prevalence among younger women is increasing, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.
There are a few different types of vulval cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common and usually starts with pre-cancerous changes to the outer layer of the skin cells of the vulva (for example, a change in the way it looks or feels).
The Eve Appeal’s cancer information nurse, Tracie Miles, told The Huffington Post UK that signs of vulval cancer may include:
:: a lasting itch
:: pain or soreness
:: thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
:: an open sore or growth visible on the skin
:: a mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
:: a lump or swelling in the vulva.
“All of these symptoms can be caused by other more common conditions, such as infection,” explained Miles.
“But if you have any of these symptoms, you should see your GP. It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem but it is important to be checked out.”
To diagnose vulval cancer, a GP will ask about your symptoms, look at your medical history, and gently examine your vulva to look for any lumps or unusual areas of skin.
“If your GP feels some further tests are necessary, they will refer you to a gynaecologist where they take a biopsy (a small sample of tissue) and examine it under a microscope to determine how the skin cells are behaving,” explained Miles.
They may also carry out blood tests or x-rays to check general health and also examine the vagina and cervix, added John Newlands, senior cancer information nurse for Macmillan Cancer Support.
If caught early, cancer of the vulva can be successfully treated by surgery alone.
“It is a skin cancer, so the principle of surgery is to remove the area of skin with a margin of healthy tissue around it to stop it from spreading,” explained Miles.
“So the earlier the better, as less skin needs to be removed.”
She added that if the cancer is left untreated, more skin will need to be removed. Sometimes this means the whole vulva with the lymph nodes in the groin being removed and tested too.
Later stage vulval cancer will require chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.
According to Cancer Research UK, more than half (53%) of women diagnosed with vaginal or vulval cancer in England survive their disease for ten years or more.
“That is why early detection and prevention of these cancer is absolutely vital,” Miles concluded.
Macmillan Cancer Support provides practical, emotional and financial help and advice for people who are affected by all types of cancer. Visit macmillan.org.uk to find out more.