Vulvar Cancer: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If the cancer has spread, it is called metastasis. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know if an area of the body has cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

How vulvar cancer is diagnosed

There are different tests used for diagnosing vulvar cancer. Not all tests described here will be used for every person. Your doctor, gynecologist, or dermatologist may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and general health

  • The results of earlier medical tests

A physical examination, including a pelvic exam, is the first step in diagnosing vulvar cancer. During the examination, the doctor inspects the vulva and then feels the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum to check for any unusual changes.

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose vulvar cancer:

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis, even if other tests can suggest that cancer is present. During biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. 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 shows invasive vulvar cancer, the doctor will refer the patient to a gynecologic oncologist, which is a doctor who specializes in treating this type of cancer.

  • Colposcopy. The doctor may perform a colposcopy to check the vagina, vulva, and cervix for any abnormalities, especially when Pap tests or human papillomavirus (HPV) tests return abnormal results. A colposcope is a special instrument, similar to a microscope, that magnifies the surface of the cervix, vagina, and vulva. The colposcope gives the doctor a lighted, magnified view of these areas. The colposcope is not inserted into the body. The examination may be uncomfortable but is not painful, can be done in the doctor’s office, and has no side effects. This examination can be performed during pregnancy.

  • Chest x-ray. An x-ray creates a picture of the structures inside of the body using a small amount of radiation. A chest x-ray may be used to see if cancer has spread to the lungs.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can 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 by mouth and swallowed, usually as a liquid.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan creates pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. 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. However, the amount of radiation in the substance is too low to be harmful. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI produces detailed images of the inside of the body using magnetic fields, not x-rays. MRI can 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 is usually injected into a patient’s vein.

  • Endoscopy. An endoscopy shows the inside of the body using a thin, lighted, flexible tube called an endoscope. The patient may be sedated as the tube is inserted through the urethra into the bladder, called cystoscopy, or through the anus into the rectum, called proctoscopy or colonoscopy. Sedation is giving medication to become more relaxed, calm, or sleepy.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, additional testing to describe the extent of the cancer will be performed. This is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.