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Vulvar Cancer

The vulva is the external area around the opening of the vagina and includes the labia.  Vulvar cancer can begin anywhere in this area, but most often occurs on the inner part of the labia.  Symptoms include itching, burning, bleeding, pain or a new lump felt in the vulvar area.  It most commonly affects women over age 70, women with diabetes, chronic vulvar irritation, or HPV infection are also at increased risk. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent vulvar cancer, but regular Pap smears and pelvic exams may lead to early detection and a better treatment outcome.  While some physicians recommend self-examination with a mirror, this can be awkward and unreliable, especially for elderly women, women with impaired vision, or women with impaired flexibility.

Fortunately, vulvar cancer is uncommon, affecting only about 4,000 American women per year.  Equally fortunate:  vulvar cancer is frequently curable, often by surgical removal of the lesions themselves or any affected lymph nodes in the groin.  Other good news:  this disease is the focus of a significant amount of research focusing on prevention and decreasing the invasiveness of surgical treatments, such as using sentinel node biopsies.  Research is also focused on reducing one of the more common complications of surgery, post-surgical swelling in the leg.  Getting women to take action earlier when they notice their symptoms is an equally important task however:  this is yet another area in which women would rather suffer from a disease than suffer from the embarrassment of an exam. 

Created: 11/12/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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