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Vulvar Cancer


Pedro T. Ramirez

, MD, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center;

Gloria Salvo

, MD, MD Anderson Cancer Center

Last full review/revision Sep 2020
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Vulvar cancer is usually a squamous cell skin cancer, most often occurring in older women. It usually manifests as a palpable lesion. Diagnosis is by biopsy. Treatment typically includes excision and lymph node dissection or sentinel lymph node mapping.

Vulvar cancer is the 4th most common gynecologic cancer in the US; it accounts for 5% of cancers of the female genital tract. In the US, vulvar cancer will cause an estimated 6120 new cases and 1350 deaths in 2020.

Average age at diagnosis is about 70, and incidence increases with age. Incidence of vulvar cancer appears to be increasing in young women.

Risk factors for vulvar cancer include

Pathology of Vulvar Cancer

About 90% of vulvar cancers are squamous cell carcinomas; about 5% are melanomas. Others include adenocarcinomas and transitional cell, adenoid cystic, and adenosquamous carcinomas; all may originate in Bartholin glands. Sarcomas and basal cell carcinomas with underlying adenocarcinoma also occur.

Vulvar cancer may spread as follows:

  • By direct extension (eg, into the urethra, bladder, vagina, perineum, anus, or rectum)

  • Hematogenously

  • To the inguinal lymph nodes

  • From the inguinal lymph nodes to the pelvic and para-aortic lymph nodes

Symptoms and Signs of Vulvar Cancer

Most patients with vulvar cancer present with a palpable vulvar lesion, frequently noticed by the woman or by a clinician during pelvic examination. Women often have a long history of pruritus. They may not present until cancer is advanced. The lesion may become necrotic or ulcerated, sometimes resulting in bleeding or a watery vaginal discharge. Melanomas may appear bluish black, pigmented, or papillary.

Diagnosis of Vulvar Cancer

  • Biopsy

  • Surgical staging

A dermal punch biopsy using a local anesthetic is usually diagnostic. Occasionally, wide local excision is necessary to differentiate VIN from cancer. Subtle lesions may be delineated by staining the vulva with toluidine blue or by using colposcopy.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • If a vulvar lesion develops in a woman at low risk of STDs or does not respond to treatment for STDs, consider vulvar cancer.


Staging of vulvar cancer is based on tumor size and location and on regional lymph node spread as determined by lymph node dissection done as part of initial surgical treatment (see table Vulvar Cancer by Stage Vulvar Cancer by Stage Vulvar Cancer by Stage ).


Prognosis for Vulvar Cancer

Overall 5-year survival rates depend on stage. Risk of lymph node spread is proportional to the tumor size and invasion depth. Melanomas metastasize frequently, depending mostly on invasion depth but also on tumor size.

Treatment of Vulvar Cancer

  • Wide excision and lymph node dissection except when stromal invasion is < 1 mm

  • Surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy for stage III or IV cancer

(See also National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN): NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Vulvar Cancer.)

Wide ( 2-cm margin) radical excision of the local tumor is indicated when the tumor confined to the vulva with no extension to adjacent perineal structures. Lymph node dissection may be done when stromal invasion is > 1 mm but is unnecessary when stromal invasion is < 1 mm. Radical vulvectomy is usually reserved for Bartholin gland adenocarcinoma.

For tumors with extension to adjacent perineal structures such as the urethra, vagina, or anus, a modified radical vulvectomy is indicated independent of tumor size.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is a reasonable alternative to lymph node dissection for some women with squamous cell vulvar carcinoma. Sentinel lymph node mapping should not be considered if clinical findings suggest cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the groin. For sentinel lymph node mapping, a tracer (blue dye, technetium-99 [99Tc], indocyanine green [ICG]) is injected intradermally around and in front of the leading edge of the vulvar carcinoma.

For lateralized lesions 2 cm, unilateral wide local excision and unilateral sentinel lymph node dissection is recommended. Lesions near the midline and most lesions > 2 cm require bilateral sentinel lymph node dissection.

For stage III, lymph node dissection followed by postoperative external beam radiation therapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiation)—preferably cisplatin; possibly fluorouracil—is usually done before wide radical excision. The alternative is more radical or exenterative surgery.

For stage IV, treatment is some combination of pelvic exenteration, radiation therapy, and systemic chemotherapy.

Key Points

  • Most vulvar cancers are skin cancers (eg, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma).

  • Consider vulvar cancers if vulvar lesions, including pruritic lesions and ulcers, do not respond to treatment for STDs or the lesions occur in women at low risk of STDs.

  • Diagnose vulvar cancer by biopsy, and stage it surgically.

  • For cancers without distant metastases, use wide local excision, and unless stromal invasion is < 1 mm, do lymph node dissection or sentinel lymph node mapping.

  • For cancers with lymph node or distant metastases, treat with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

More Information

The following is an English-language resource that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

  • National Cancer Institute: Vulvar Cancer: This web site provides links to information about causes, prevention, and treatment of vulvar cancer, as well as links to information about screening, statistics, and supportive and palliative care.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

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