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Vulvar Cancer - Overview

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Vulvar Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the vulva

The vulva is a woman’s external genitalia and is made up of the skin and fatty tissue that surround the clitoris and the openings of the vagina and urethra. The fatty tissue makes up two folds, called the labia majora and labia minora. Cancer of the vulva occurs most often in or on the labia. Less frequently, it can occur on the clitoris or in glands on the sides of the vaginal opening, called the Bartholin’s glands, which produce a mucus­­-like lubricating fluid.

About vulvar cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Vulvar cancer is classified into three main types, named for the type of tissue where the cancer started.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that accounts for about 90% of vulvar cancer, most of which are found on the labia. It can develop through a precancerous condition, which is when changes in cells may, but do not always, become cancer. This is called vulvar dysplasia or vulva intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). VIN is a pre-malignant (not yet cancer) growth of cells on the vulva and is treated differently than invasive cancer.

  • Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma starts in the Bartholin’s glands or vulvar sweat glands, and accounts for a small percentage of vulvar cancer. It is usually found on the sides of the vaginal opening.

  • Melanoma. Melanoma is another type of skin cancer that accounts for about 2% to 4% of vulvar cancer. It occurs most often on the clitoris or the labia minora. Women with melanoma on other parts of their body have an increased risk of developing vulvar melanoma. Vulvar melanoma is often treated using similar approaches for the treatment of melanoma in other parts of the body.

Other, less common vulvar cancers include:

  • Paget’s disease of the vulva, in which adenocarcinoma cells are found in the vulvar skin

  • Sarcoma, a tumor of the connective tissue beneath the skin

  • Verrucous carcinoma, a slow-growing subtype of squamous cell carcinoma that looks like a wart

The next section in this guide is Statistics and it helps explain how many women are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Statistics

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find information about how many women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer each year. You will also learn some general information on surviving the disease. Remember, survival rates depend on several factors. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

This year, an estimated 5,950 women in the United States will be diagnosed with vulvar cancer. Its incidence is increasing in young women because of its association with the human papillomavirus (HPV). See the Risk Factors section for more information on HPV.

It is estimated that 1,110 deaths from this disease will occur this year.

The 5-year survival rate tells you what percent of women live at least 5 years after the cancer is found. Percent means how many out of 100. The 5-year survival rate for women with vulvar cancer is 86%.  However, survival rates depends on several factors, including the type of vulvar cancer and the stage of disease at the time it is diagnosed.

The 5-year survival rate for cancer that has not spread beyond the vulva is 86%. For cancer that has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 54%. The survival rate is 16% if the cancer has spread to a distant part of the body.

It is important to remember that statistics on how many women survive this type of cancer are an estimate. The estimate comes from data based on thousands of people with this cancer in the United States each year. So, your own risk may be different. Doctors cannot say for sure how long any woman will live with vulvar cancer. Also, experts measure the survival statistics every 5 years. This means that the estimate may not show the results of better diagnosis or treatment available for less than 5 years. Learn more about understanding statistics.

Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society's (ACS) publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2016, and the ACS website.

The next section in this guide is Risk Factors and Prevention. It explains what factors may increase the chance of developing this disease. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Risk Factors and Prevention

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a woman’s risk of developing vulvar cancer:

  • Age. Most women diagnosed with vulvar cancer are older than 50. However, about 15% of women who develop vulvar cancer are younger than 40. Generally, vulvar cancer in younger women is associated with HPV infection (see below) and smoking. Vulvar cancer in older women is most often associated with lichen sclerosus, which is a rare skin condition described below. It also is associated with changes in certain genes.

  • HPV infection. Research indicates that infection with this virus is a risk factor for vulvar cancer. HPV is most commonly passed from person to person during sexual activity. There are different types, or strains, of HPV. Some strains are more strongly linked with certain types of cancer. HPV may be responsible for about one-third to two-thirds of vulvar cancer. Many types of cancer caused by HPV are associated with precancerous conditions, which are changes in cells that may, but do not always, become cancer. HPV vaccines protect against specific strains of the virus. Learn more about HPV and cancer.

  • Smoking. Smoking may increase a woman’s risk of developing vulvar cancer if she has HPV.

  • Immune system deficiency. Women with lowered immune systems have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer. A lowered immune system can be caused by immune suppression from corticosteroid medications, organ transplantation, treatment for other types of cancer, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a woman has a lowered immune system, her body is more likely to develop infections, including an HPV infection.

  • Lichen sclerosus This condition affects the vulvar skin, making it thin and itchy. About 4% of women with lichen sclerosus develop vulvar cancer.

  • Precancerous conditions. Precancerous conditions of the vulva, cervix, or vagina, or melanoma elsewhere on the body, can increase a woman’s risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Prevention and Early Detection

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

All women should have an annual gynecologic examination. During this exam, the doctor will take a family medical history and perform a general physical examination of the pelvis, during which the doctor will feel a woman’s uterus, vagina, cervix, and other reproductive organs to check for any unusual changes. Regular pelvic examinations can help detect cancer or precancerous conditions at an early stage.

In addition, research has shown that certain factors can help prevent vulvar cancer:

  • Delaying first sexual intercourse until the late teens or older

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with multiple partners

  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners

  • Practicing safe sex, including condom use (although condoms cannot fully protect against HPV)

  • Having regular gynecologic examinations to find and treat precancerous conditions

  • Quitting smoking, if a smoker

In 2008, a vaccine used to prevent cervical cancer for girls and women between ages 9 and 26 was also approved to prevent vulvar cancer. Although this vaccine protects against certain strains of the virus, the vaccine does not protect people who are already infected with HPV. Learn more about the HPV vaccine and talk with your doctor for more information.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs and it explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Symptoms and Signs

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Women with vulvar cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, women with vulvar cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer.

  • A lump or growth in or on the vulvar area

  • A patch of skin that is differently textured or colored than the rest of the vulvar area

  • Persistent itching, pain, soreness, or burning in the vulvar area

  • Painful urination

  • Bleeding or discharge that is not menstrual blood

  • An ulcer that persists for more than one month

  • A change in the appearance of an existing mole (specific to vulvar melanoma)

  • Wart-like growths that are similar to genital warts

If you are concerned about one or more of the symptoms or signs on this list, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis and it explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Diagnosis

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of the common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors can use to find out what’s wrong and identify the cause of the problem. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has spread to another part of the body, called metastasis. Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer.

If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has spread.

Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • Age and medical condition

  • Type of cancer suspected

  • Signs and symptoms

  • Previous test results

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose vulvar cancer. Not all tests listed will be used for every person.

  • Pelvic examination. The doctor feels the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, and rectum to check for any unusual changes.

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. The sample removed during the biopsy is analyzed by a pathologist. A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease. The type of biopsy performed will depend on the location of the suspicious tissue.

If the biopsy indicates that cervical cancer is present, the doctor will refer the woman to a gynecologic oncologist, who specializes in treating this type of cancer. 

  • Lymph node sampling. The lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection. To determine whether a cancer has spread, it may be necessary to remove lymph nodes for a biopsy. The procedure for determining if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes is the sentinel lymph node biopsy. In this procedure, the first, or sentinel, lymph node is sampled. Recent research has shown that if the first lymph node is free of cancer, then the cancer most likely has not spread.

  • X-ray. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside of the body using a small amount of radiation.

  • Endoscopy. This test allows the doctor to see inside the body with a thin, lighted, flexible tube called an endoscope. The woman may be sedated as the tube is inserted through the mouth, anus, vagina, urethra, or a small surgical opening. Sedation is giving medication to become more relaxed, calm, or sleepy.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill to swallow.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill to swallow.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer; this is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages, and it explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Stages

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about how doctors describe a cancer’s growth or spread. This is called the stage. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body. Doctors use diagnostic tests to find out the cancer's stage, so staging may not be complete until all of the tests are finished.

Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient's prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. There are different stage descriptions for different types of cancer.

TNM staging system

One tool that doctors use to describe the stage is the TNM system. Doctors use the results from diagnostic tests and scans to answer these questions:

  • Tumor (T): How large is the primary tumor? Where is it located?

  • Node (N): Has the tumor spread to the lymph nodes? If so, where and how many?

  • Metastasis (M): Has the cancer metastasized to other parts of the body? If so, where and how much?

The results are combined to determine the stage of cancer for each person. There are five stages of vulvar cancer: stage 0 (zero) and stages I through IV (one through four). The stage provides a common way of describing the cancer, so doctors can work together to plan the best treatments.

Here are more details on each part of the TNM system for vulvar cancer:

Tumor (T)

Using the TNM system, the "T" plus a letter or number (0 to 4) is used to describe the size and location of the tumor. Some stages are also divided into smaller groups that help describe the tumor in even more detail. Specific tumor stage information is listed below.

TX: The primary tumor cannot be evaluated.

T0: There is no tumor.

Tis: The tumor is carcinoma in situ, an early cancer on the surface of the skin that has not spread to nearby tissue.

T1: The tumor is only in the vulva, or the vulva and perineum (the area of skin between the anus and vagina), and is 2 centimeters (cm) or smaller.

T1a: The tumor is only in the vulva, or the vulva and perineum, is 2 cm or smaller, and has spread no more than 1 millimeter (mm) into nearby structures.

T1b: The tumor is only in the vulva, or the vulva and perineum, is 2 cm or smaller, and has spread more than 1 mm into nearby structures.

T2: The tumor is only in the vulva, or the vulva and perineum, and is larger than 2 cm.

T3: The tumor, of any size, has spread to the lower urethra and/or the vagina or anus.

T4: The tumor has spread to any of the following: upper urethra, bladder mucosa, rectal mucosa, or is attached to the pubic bone.

Node (N)

The “N” in the TNM staging system stands for lymph nodes. Lymph nodes near the pelvis and groin are called regional lymph nodes. Lymph nodes in other parts of the body are called distant lymph nodes.

NX: The regional lymph nodes cannot be evaluated.

N0: Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.

N1: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the body as the tumor.

N2: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on both sides of the body.

Metastasis (M)

The “M” in the TNM system indicates whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, called distant metastasis.

MX: Distant metastasis cannot be evaluated.

M0: There is no distant metastasis.

M1: There is metastasis to other parts of the body.

Grade (G)

Doctors also describe this type of cancer by its grade (G), which describes how much cancer cells look like healthy cells when viewed under a microscope. The doctor compares the cancerous tissue with healthy tissue. Healthy tissue usually contains many different types of cells grouped together.

If the cancer looks similar to healthy tissue and contains different cell groupings, it is called differentiated or a low-grade tumor. If the cancerous tissue looks very different from healthy tissue, it is called poorly differentiated or a high-grade tumor.

The cancer’s grade may help the doctor predict how quickly the cancer will spread. In general, the lower the tumor’s grade, the better the prognosis.

GX: The tumor grade cannot be evaluated.

G1: The tumor cells contain many healthy-looking cells and are well differentiated.

G2: The tumor cells appear more abnormal than healthy and are moderately differentiated.

G3: Most of the tumor cells appear abnormal and are poorly differentiated.

G4: The tumor cells barely resemble healthy cells and are undifferentiated.

Cancer stage grouping

Doctors assign the stage of the cancer by combining the T, N, and M classifications.

Stage 0: The cancer has not spread from where it started and is on the surface of the skin of the vulva only (Tis, N0, M0).

Stage I: The tumor is smaller than 2 cm and has not spread (T1, N0, M0).

Stage IA: The tumor is smaller than 2 cm, has not spread, and is no deeper than 1 mm (T1a, N0, M0).

Stage IB: The tumor is smaller than 2 cm, has not spread, and is deeper than 1mm (T1b, N0, M0).

State II: The tumor is larger than 2 cm, is in the vulva or perineum or both, but has not spread to nearby tissue (T2, N0, M0).

Stage III: The cancer has spread to nearby tissue (vagina, anus, urethra) and/or lymph nodes on one side of the body, but there is no distant metastasis (T1 or T2, N1, M0; T3, N0 or N1, M0).

Stage IVA: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes on both sides of the body or spread into the upper part of the urethra, bladder, rectum, or pelvic bone (T1, T2, T3; N2, M0; or T4, any N, M0).

Stage IVB: Any cancer that has spread to a distant part of the body (any T, any N, M1).

Recurrent: Recurrent cancer is cancer that has come back after treatment. If the cancer does return, there will be another round of tests to learn about the extent of the recurrence. These tests and scans are often similar to those done at the time of the original diagnosis.

Used with permission of the AJCC, Chicago, Illinois. The original source for this material is the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, Seventh Edition, published by Springer-Verlag New York, www.cancerstaging.org. Please note that AJCC’s Eighth Edition (2017) has been released; related changes to the information provided above are underway. Please check back soon for updated staging definitions or talk with your doctor about whether these changes affect your diagnosis.

Information about the cancer’s stage will help the doctor recommend a specific treatment plan. The next section in this guide is Treatment Options. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Treatment

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different ways doctors use to treat people with this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best known treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option.

A clinical trial is a research study to test a new approach to treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatment. Clinical trials may test such approaches as a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of current therapies. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. For more information, see the About Clinical Trials and Latest Research sections.

Treatment overview

In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team. Cancer care teams also include a variety of other health care professionals, including physician assistants, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, counselors, dietitians, and others.

Treatment options and recommendations for vulvar cancer depend on several factors, including:

  • The type and stage of disease

  • Possible side effects

  • Preferences of patient

  • Overall health of patient

Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Also, talk about the goals of each treatment with your doctor and what you can expect while receiving the treatment.

Treatment overview for VIN

As explained in the Overview, VIN is a pre-cancerous condition. VIN is usually treated by simple surgical removal of the disease. The treatment plan may include laser surgery, photodynamic therapy, and/or medication(s) applied to the vulva area. Depending on the extent of VIN, sometimes surgical removal of the vulva is recommended. See below for more information on each of these treatment options.

Treatment overview for vulvar cancer

The main treatment for vulvar cancer is surgery. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used if the cancer cannot be entirely removed with surgery, if the cancer is high-risk for recurrence, and/or if the lymph nodes are involved with cancer.  If the tumor has spread to the point that removal is not possible, sometimes the patient’s treatment starts radiation therapy, with or without chemotherapy. Surgical removal of the vulva is sometimes considered after this treatment if the entire tumor does not go away with these treatments. Learn more about making treatment decisions.

Women with vulvar cancer may have concerns about if and how these treatments may affect their sexual function and fertility (ability to have children), and these topics should be discussed with the health care team before treatment begins.

Descriptions of each of the most common treatment options are listed below.

Surgery

Surgery is the removal of the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. Learn more about the basics of cancer surgery. Due to the location and sensitivity of vulvar tissue, the type of surgery is carefully considered. Surgical options for vulvar cancer include:

  • Laser surgery. Laser surgery is the use of a focused beam of light that burns the cancer off the skin. It can be used to treat precancerous conditions, but cannot be used to treat an invasive tumor.
  • Excision. This is the removal of the tumor and some of the surrounding healthy tissue, called a margin. If the procedure is extensive, this may be called a partial vulvectomy (see below).
  • Vulvectomy. This is the removal of part or all of the vulva. In a skinning vulvectomy, only the top layer of skin is removed. A simple vulvectomy is the removal of the entire vulva. A radical vulvectomy is the removal of part or all of the vulva and deep tissue, including the clitoris.

Coping with vulvar surgery

Many women experience a range of feelings after vulvar surgery, such as loss, sadness, or anxiety. Some women may feel that they have lost their identity as women. Others have questions about whether sexual intercourse can continue after surgery.

Before surgery, it is important to talk with the surgeon about the procedure, the possible side effects, and when sexual intercourse can resume. Women should talk with their doctors about finding additional information or support in coping with this surgery. Learn more about sexual health and cancer treatment in women

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-bean radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.

General side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach and loose bowel movements, damage to healthy vaginal tissue, or narrowing of the vagina. Most of these side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. However, the vagina may shorten and narrow so much that sexual intercourse is not possible. To prevent this, the vagina may need to be stretched with a plastic tube called a vaginal dilator several times a week.

For more information about radiation therapy for gynecologic cancer, see the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology's pamphlet, Radiation Therapy for Gynecologic Cancers.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication.

Systemic chemotherapy gets into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed.

A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, or diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.

For vulvar cancer, chemotherapy with cisplatin is sometimes given weekly intravenously, if the patient is to also receive radiation therapy. Whether this drug is used depends on factors including overall health, kidney function measured by laboratory tests, and other medical factors. If the cancer has returned and spread, drugs that are used in other squamous cell cancers, such as in treating cervical cancer are sometimes considered. 

Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Getting care for symptoms and side effects

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care. It works best when palliative care is started as early as needed in the cancer treatment process.

People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional support and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment in the treatment plan.

Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and palliative care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem so it can be addressed as quickly as possible.

Learn more about palliative care.

Metastatic vulvar cancer

If cancer has spread to another location in the body, it is called metastatic cancer. Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about getting a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials.

Your health care team may recommend a treatment plan that includes a combination of the treatments discussed above. Palliative care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.

For most patients, a diagnosis of metastatic cancer is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.

Remission and the chance of recurrence

A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called having “no evidence of disease” or NED. 

A remission may be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding your risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.

If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).

When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer.

Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects.

People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.

If treatment fails

Recovery from cancer is not always possible. If the cancer cannot be cured or controlled, the disease may be called advanced or terminal.

This diagnosis is stressful, and advanced cancer is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.

Patients who have advanced cancer and who are expected to live less than six months may want to consider a type of palliative care called hospice care. Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life.

You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced cancer care planning.

After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help them cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and loss.

The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials and it offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with cancer. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - About Clinical Trials

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about clinical trials, which are the main way that new medical approaches are tested to see how well they work. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

What are clinical trials?

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to care for women with vulvar cancer. To make scientific advances, doctors create research studies involving volunteers, called clinical trials. In fact, every drug that is now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was previously tested in clinical trials.

Many clinical trials are focused on new treatments, evaluating whether a new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than the current (standard) treatment. These types of studies evaluate new drugs, different combinations of existing treatments, new approaches to radiation therapy or surgery, and new methods of treatment

Patients who participate in clinical trials are often among the first to receive new treatments before they are widely available. However, there is no guarantee that the new treatment will be safe, effective, or better than a standard treatment.  

There are also clinical trials that study new ways to ease symptoms and side effects during treatment and manage the late effects that may occur after treatment. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials regarding side effects. In addition, there are ongoing studies about ways to prevent the disease.

Deciding to join a clinical trial

Patients decide to participate in clinical trials for many reasons. For some patients, a clinical trial is the best treatment option available. Because standard treatments are not perfect, patients are often willing to face the added uncertainty of a clinical trial in the hope of a better result. Other patients volunteer for clinical trials because they know that these studies are the only way to make progress in treating vulvar cancer. Even if they do not benefit directly from the clinical trial, their participation may benefit future patients with vulvar cancer.

Sometimes people have concerns that, in a clinical trial, they may receive no treatment by being given a placebo or a “sugar pill.” However, placebos are usually combined with standard treatment in most cancer clinical trials. When a placebo is used in a study, it is done with the full knowledge of the participants. Find out more about placebos in cancer clinical trials.

Patient safety and informed consent

To join a clinical trial, patients must participate in a process known as informed consent. During informed consent, the doctor should list all of the patient’s options so that the person understands how the new treatment differs from the standard treatment. The doctor must also list all of the risks of the new treatment, which may or may not be different from the risks of standard treatment. Finally, the doctor must explain what will be required of each patient in order to participate in the clinical trial, including the number of doctor visits, tests, and the schedule of treatment.

Patients who participate in a clinical trial may stop participating at any time for any personal or medical reason. This may include that the new treatment is not working or there are serious side effects.

Clinical trials are also closely monitored by experts who watch for any problems with each study. It is important that patients participating in a clinical trial talk with their doctor and researchers about who will be providing their treatment and care during the clinical trial, after the clinical trial ends, and/or if the patient chooses to leave the clinical trial before it ends.

Finding a clinical trial

Research through clinical trials is ongoing for all types of cancer. For specific topics being studied for vulvar cancer, learn more in the Latest Research section.

Cancer.Net offers a lot of information about cancer clinical trials in other areas of the website, including a complete section on clinical trials and places to search for clinical trials for a specific type of cancer.

In addition, this website offers free access to a video-based educational program about cancer clinical trials, located outside of this guide.

The next section in this guide is Latest Research and it explains areas of scientific research currently going on for this type of cancer. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Latest Research

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors are working to learn more about vulvar cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

  • Different surgical techniques. Researchers are studying new techniques, including reconstruction, to reduce the effects of vulvar surgery or to reconstruct the fatty tissue of the vulva after surgery.

  • HPV and vulvar cancer. Research continues regarding the link between HPV and vulvar cancer, leading to a better understanding of the types of vulvar cancer and how each type grows.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing side effects of current vulvar cancer treatments to improve patients’ quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding vulvar cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Side Effects and it offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Coping with Side Effects

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about steps to take to help cope with physical, social, and emotional side effects. This page includes several links outside of this guide to other sections of this website. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Fear of treatment side effects is common after a diagnosis of cancer, but it may help to know that preventing and controlling side effects is a major focus of your health care team. This is called palliative care, and it is an important part of the overall treatment plan, regardless of the stage of disease.

There are possible side effects for every cancer treatment, but patients don’t experience the same side effects when given the same treatments for many reasons. That can make it hard to predict exactly how you will feel during treatment.

Common side effects from each treatment option for vulvar cancer are described in detail within the Treatment Options section. Learn more about the most common side effects of cancer and different treatments, along with ways to prevent or control them. Side effects depend on a variety of factors, including the cancer’s stage, the length and dosage of treatment(s), and your overall health.

Talking with your team about side effects

Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each type of treatment you will be receiving. Ask which side effects are most likely to happen, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them.

And, ask about the level of caregiving you may need during treatment and recovery, as family members and friends often play an important role in the care of a woman with vulvar cancer. Learn more about caregiving.

In addition to physical side effects, there may be emotional and social effects as well. Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team who can help with coping strategies, including concerns about managing the cost of your cancer care

During and after treatment, be sure to tell the health care team about the side effects you experience, even if you feel they are not serious. Sometimes, side effects can last beyond the treatment period, called a long-term side effect. A side effect that occurs months or years after treatment is called a late effect. Treatment of both types of effects is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more by reading the Follow-up Care section of this guide or talking with your doctor.  

The next section in this guide is Follow-up Care and it explains the importance of check-ups after cancer treatment is finished. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Follow-up Care

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after cancer treatment is completed, and why this follow-up care is important. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Care for people diagnosed with cancer doesn’t end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check to make sure the cancer has not returned, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

This plan may include regular physical examinations and/or medical tests to monitor your recovery for the coming months and years. Although there are no specific guidelines, women should visit their doctors regularly for those physical examinations as well as pelvic examinations after treatment for vulvar cancer. The doctor may also recommend other tests, including x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, or MRI scans.

Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence. Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms. During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will also ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors including the type and stage of cancer originally diagnosed and the types of treatment given.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to experience side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. In addition, other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years afterwards. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on the type of cancer, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may also have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to ask about any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to help create a treatment summary to keep track of the cancer treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan once treatment is completed.

This is also a good time to decide who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the general care of their family doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences. 

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your cancer care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your cancer treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with him or her, as well as all future health care providers. Details about your cancer treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship and it describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Survivorship

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

What is survivorship?

The word survivorship means different things to different people. Two common definitions include:

  • Having no signs of cancer after finishing treatment.

  • The process of living with, through, and beyond cancer. According to this definition, cancer survivorship begins at diagnosis and includes people who continue to have treatment over the long term, to either reduce the risk of recurrence or to manage chronic disease.

In some ways, survivorship is one of the most complex aspects of the cancer experience because it is different for every person.

Survivors may experience a mixture of strong feelings, including joy, concern, relief, guilt, and fear. Some people say they appreciate life more after a cancer diagnosis and have gained a greater acceptance of themselves. Others become very anxious about their health and uncertain of how to cope with everyday life.

Survivors may feel some stress when frequent visits to the health care team end following treatment. Often, relationships built with the cancer care team provide a sense of security during treatment, and people miss this source of support. This may be especially true as new worries and challenges surface over time, such as any late effects of treatment, emotional challenges including fear of recurrence, sexuality and fertility concerns, and financial and workplace issues.

Every survivor has individual concerns and challenges. With any challenge, a good first step is being able to recognize your fears and talk about them. Effective coping requires:

  • Understanding the challenge you are facing,

  • Thinking through solutions,

  • Asking for and allowing the support of others, and

  • Feeling comfortable with the course of action you choose.

Many survivors find it helpful to join an in-person support group or an online community of survivors. This allows you to talk with people who have had similar first-hand experiences. Other options for finding support include talking with a friend or member of your health care team, individual counseling, or asking for assistance at the learning resource center of the center where you received treatment.

Changing role of caregivers

Family members and friends may also go through periods of transition. A caregiver plays a very important role in supporting a person diagnosed with cancer, providing physical, emotional, and practical care on a daily or as-needed basis. Many caregivers become focused on providing this support, especially if the treatment period lasts for many months or longer.

However, as treatment is completed, the caregiver's role often changes. Eventually, the need for caregiving related to the cancer diagnosis will become much less or come to an end. Caregivers can learn more about adjusting to life after caregiving in this article.

A new perspective on your health

For many people, survivorship serves as a strong motivator to make positive lifestyle changes.

People recovering from vulvar cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating well, and managing stress. Regular physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your health care team can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. Learn more about making healthy lifestyle choices.

In addition, it is important to have recommended medical check-ups and tests (see Follow-up Care) to take care of your health. Cancer rehabilitation may also be recommended, and this could mean any of a wide range of services such as physical therapy, career counseling, pain management, nutritional planning, and/or emotional counseling. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible.

Talk with your doctor to develop a survivorship care plan that is best for your needs.

Looking for More Survivorship Resources?

For more information about cancer survivorship, explore these related items. Please note these links will take you to other sections of Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Cancer Survivorship Guide: This 44-page booklet (available as a PDF) helps people transition into life after treatment. It includes blank treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms.
  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert that provides information about what comes next after finishing treatment.
  • Survivorship Resources: Cancer.Net offers an entire area of this website with resources to help survivors, including for survivors in different age groups.

The next section offers Questions to Ask the Doctor to help start conversations with your cancer care team. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Questions to Ask the Doctor

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some questions to ask your doctor or other members of your health care team, to help you better understand your diagnosis, treatment plan, and overall care. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Talking often with the doctor is important to make informed decisions about your health care. These suggested questions are a starting point to help you learn more about your cancer care and treatment. You are also encouraged to ask additional questions that are important to you.

You may want to print this list and bring it to your next appointment, or download Cancer.Net’s free mobile app for an e-list and other interactive tools to manage your care.

Questions to ask after getting a diagnosis

  • What type of vulvar cancer do I have?

  • Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?

  • What is the stage of my cancer? What does this mean?

Questions to ask about choosing a treatment and managing side effects

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What clinical trials are open to me? Where are they located, and how do I find out more about them?

  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?

  • What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help feel better, or both?

  • What are the possible side effects of treatment, both in the short term and the long term?

  • Who will be part of my health care team, and what does each member do?

  • Who will be coordinating my overall treatment?

  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and perform my usual activities?

  • How will this treatment affect my sex life, and for how long?

  • Could this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before cancer treatment begins?

  • If I’m worried about managing the costs related to my cancer care, who can help me with these concerns?

  • How can I keep myself as healthy as possible during treatment?

  • What support services are available for me? For my family?

  • Whom should I call for questions or problems?

  • Is there anything else I should be asking?

Question to ask about having surgery

  • What type of surgery will I have? Will lymph nodes be removed?

  • Who will be doing the surgery?

  • How long will the operation take?

  • How long will I be in the hospital?

  • Can you describe what my recovery from surgery will be like?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this surgery?

  • Is reconstructive surgery an option?

Questions to ask about having radiation therapy, or chemotherapy, etc.

  • What type of treatment is recommended?

  • What is the goal of this treatment?

  • How long will it take to give this treatment?

  • What side effects can I expect during treatment?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this treatment?

  • What can be done to relieve the side effects?

Questions to ask about planning follow-up care

  • What is the risk of the cancer returning? Are there signs and symptoms I should watch for?

  • What long-term side effects or late effects are possible based on the cancer treatment I received?

  • What follow-up tests will I need, and how often will I need them?

  • How do I get a treatment summary and survivorship care plan to keep in my personal records?

  • Who will be coordinating my follow-up care?

  • What survivorship support services are available to me? To my family?

The next section in this guide is Additional Resources, and it offers some more resources on this website beyond this guide that may be helpful to you. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Vulvar Cancer - Additional Resources

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some helpful links to other areas of Cancer.Net that provide information about cancer care and treatment. This is the final page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Vulvar Cancer. To go back and review other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Cancer.Net includes many other sections about the medical and emotional aspects of cancer, both for the person diagnosed and their family members and friends. This website is meant to be a resource for you and your loved ones from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, and beyond.

Beyond this guide, here are a few links to help you explore other parts of Cancer.Net:

This is the end of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Vulvar Cancer. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select another section to continue reading this guide.