Being Well

Know Your Risk of Vulvar Cancer

The risk of developing vulvar cancer increases with age, but it's highly treatable if caught early.

Vulvar cancer is an extremely rare type of cancer that can develop on a woman’s external genitalia. When caught early, this cancer is very treatable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the symptoms of this disease as:

  • changes in the texture and color of your genitalia
  • discomfort in your vulvar area
  • a lump, sore or rash in your vulva
  • bleeding not associated with menstruation
  • painful sex or urination

Who Is at Risk?

A risk factor for a cancer doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop the condition, but it increases the likelihood of that happening. It’s not uncommon to have many risk factors without actually developing cancer, and some people may develop a cancer while having few risk factors. Reducing your risk factors can help reduce your chances of developing cancer, however, and an understanding of your risks allows you and your doctor to monitor your health and hopefully catch changes in your body before they become serious.

The American Cancer Society identifies the following risks for vulvar cancer:

  • Age. Age poses a risk here, with most cases occurring in women over the age of 70. (Thus, your sexual health is important even postmenopause.)
  • Smoking. Smoking can lead to the development of many cancers.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). A history of HPV infection significantly increases your risk of developing vulvar cancer. This also increases the risk of developing the cancer at a much younger age. A history of HIV infection may increase your risk of developing an HPV infection.
  • Lichen sclerosus (LSA). This is a condition where the skin of your vulva thins and becomes itchy. There’s slightly more of a risk of developing cancer in women who have had LSA.
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). This is a precancerous condition of the vulva that has the potential to develop into cancer. Some cases of VIN are associated with HPV but not all.
  • Other genital cancers. Cervical and other genital cancers have the same risk factors as cancer of the vulva.
  • Melanoma or atypical moles. There’s a very remote risk that melanoma can develop in your vulva.

Can It Be Prevented?

The American Society of Clinical Oncology explains that rather than preventing cancer entirely, steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. One of the most effective ways to reduce cancer risk is to avoid cigarette smoke and for smokers to stop smoking. This applies for vulvar cancer as well. You should have regular gynecologic exams to identify and treat precancerous conditions before cancer can develop, and you should take steps to reduce your risk of contracting HPV, such as receiving the HPV vaccine and practicing safe sex.

Routine gynecologic exams combined with open communication with your doctor regarding any symptoms you may be experiencing can help identify and address warning signs for this cancer early on. Early intervention is the best way to prevent precancerous conditions from developing into cancer and has the best results when treating cancer.

UVA Cancer Center has a leading gynecologic program, with distinguished doctors and an impressive portfolio of research.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley