Vulvar cancer symptoms are not always noticeable, especially when the cancer is in its early stages. Additionally, when symptoms do become apparent, it can be easy for a woman to mistakenly attribute them to a more common—and less serious—medical condition. Because there are currently no recommended screening tests that can reliably detect vulvar cancer in women who are not exhibiting symptoms, it is important for every woman to examine herself regularly to become familiar with her body and what is normal for her, and to promptly discuss any abnormalities or concerns with a health care provider.
General signs of vulvar cancer to watch for
Some common vulvar cancer symptoms include:
- Persistent itching, burning, pain or tenderness in the vulva
- Vaginal bleeding unrelated to menstruation
- Vulvar skin changes, such as variations in pigment or texture
- Open sores
- Wart-like bumps or growths
- Painful urination
Symptoms by vulvar cancer type
There are several different types of precancerous vulvar changes and vulvar cancer, and each type can produce its own unique set of symptoms.
Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia
A precancerous skin condition, vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) occurs when the skin cells covering the vulva undergo abnormal changes. In many cases, VIN does not produce any noticeable symptoms, although some women experience persistent genital itching. Additionally, an area of vulvar skin may thicken and appear lighter or darker in color than the surrounding skin. If left untreated, VIN can gradually progress and develop into vulvar cancer.
Invasive squamous cell cancer of the vulva
Invasive vulvar cancers almost always produce symptoms, such as:
- Vulvar pain, burning or itching
- Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding
- An area of vulvar skin that is lighter or darker in color than the surrounding skin or otherwise looks different than usual
- A lump or area of rough or thickened skin on the vulva
- An open sore that does not heal within 1 month
A type of skin cancer that develops on the clitoris or labia minora, vulvar melanoma is the second most common type of vulvar cancer. In addition to typical vulvar cancer symptoms—pain, itching, bleeding, skin changes, lumps and sores—the signs of vulvar melanoma include changes in a mole, which can be identified using the ABCDE rule for melanomas:
- Asymmetry – The two halves of the mole are not identical.
- Border irregularity – The edges of the mole are uneven or ragged.
- Color variations – The mole has differing shades of black, brown or tan, or patches of blue, red or white.
- Diameter – The mole is wider than 1/4 inch.
- Evolving appearance – The mole noticeably changes in size, shape or color.
Bartholin gland cancer
Accounting for only a small percentage of vulvar cancer cases, adenocarcinoma sometimes develops in the Bartholin’s glands or vulvar sweat glands. The most common sign is a distinct mass or lump near the vaginal opening. In most cases, this type of lump is caused by a noncancerous Bartholin gland cyst rather than Bartholin gland cancer.
Paget’s disease of the vulva
A type of skin cancer that arises from glandular cells, Paget’s disease of the vulva typically appears as a velvety area of pink or red skin with white patches. The skin may be itchy or sore. Additionally, it may have moist, oozing ulcerations that bleed easily.
When to see a physician
In most cases, vulvar cancer symptoms are not caused by vulvar cancer. Even so, a symptom may be a warning sign of another health issue, so it’s important to discuss it with a physician who can diagnose the underlying cause and, whether or not it is related to cancer, suggest an appropriate treatment strategy.
If you would like to discuss your vulvar cancer symptoms with a specialist, you can request an appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our online new patient registration form. The multispecialty team in our gynecological clinic offers comprehensive preventive, diagnostic, treatment and supportive care services in a single location. Through our dedicated research program and robust clinical trials, we are making great strides in enhancing the treatment options available for all current and future cancer patients.