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Vulvar cancer is a relatively rare malignancy that affects the external part of the female reproductive system. The most common type is vulvar squamous cell carcinoma, which originates in the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the vulva. Most often, the tumors develop in the labia majora or labia minora, which are folds of skin (lips) that protect the openings of the urethra and vagina.

Patient discusses vulvar cancer causes

What causes vulvar cancer?

Like all types of cancer, vulvar cancer results from out-of-control cell growth. When cells reproduce at an accelerated rate, new cells form before they are needed. The excess cells then build up, bind together and form tumors. If left untreated, vulvar cancer may invade and destroy nearby healthy tissues. Cancerous cells can also enter the lymphatic system or bloodstream and travel to distant areas of the body.

Through recent studies, researchers have linked the rapid cell growth that leads to the development of vulvar squamous cell carcinoma to:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – Vulvar cancers associated with certain high-risk HPV strains, such as the basaloid and warty subtypes, have distinctive features and are most often seen in women who are 40 or younger and smoke.
  • Mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene – Vulvar cancers unrelated to HPV are most often diagnosed in women over 55 who have p53 gene mutations. When functioning normally, the p53 gene plays an important role in preventing healthy cells from becoming cancerous.

Vulvar cancer risk factors

Scientists have identified certain factors that can increase the risk of vulvar cancer. Even so, risk factors do not tell the whole story. Some women who are diagnosed with vulvar cancer have no apparent risk factors, while others have one or more risk factors and never develop the condition.

Some known vulvar cancer risk factors include:

  • Advanced age – Cancer risk increases with age. The average age at the time of a vulvar cancer diagnosis is 65.
  • HPV infection – In many cases, an HPV infection will resolve on its own. However, HPV exposure can sometimes lead to cellular changes that increase the risk of vulvar cancer.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection – HIV weakens the body’s immune system, which in turn can make a woman more susceptible to HPV infection and thus elevate her vulvar cancer risk.
  • Precancerous conditions of the vulva or cervix – Because a small number of women with vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia will develop invasive vulvar cancer, a physician will usually recommend removing the abnormal cells and following up with regular check-ups.
  • Chronic vulvar inflammation – Certain skin conditions, such as lichen sclerosus, lichen planus and Paget’s disease, can cause long-term irritation of the vulvar skin, which can sometimes lead to cancer.

Vulvar cancer prevention

While there is no standard screening test for vulvar cancer, a woman can reduce her risk by having an annual gynecologic examination. Additionally, symptoms such as vulvar skin changes, sores, itching, burning, bleeding and pain should be promptly discussed with a physician. If a vulvar lesion is found to be precancerous, it can be removed before cancer develops.

Another way to prevent vulvar cancer is to take steps to prevent and detect HPV, such as:

  • Getting the HPV vaccine to reduce the risk of contracting HPV, a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Receiving routine Pap tests to check for cervical cancer, which may be caused by an HPV infection 

Additionally, some vulvar cancer risk factors, such as smoking and excessively consuming alcoholic beverages, can be controlled through healthy lifestyle choices. Therefore, it is possible for a woman to take preventive measures to help ensure that her vulvar cancer risk level is as low as possible.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about vulvar cancer causes and risk factors

If you have been diagnosed with vulvar cancer, you may want to take steps to educate yourself. Learning about your cancer and treatment options can alleviate some of the initial anxiety you may be experiencing. Moffitt Cancer Center is committed to providing our patients with the information they need to make fully informed treatment decisions with confidence. Toward that end, we have included the following article as a reliable source of information relating to a FAQ about vulvar cancer causes:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The scientists at Moffitt are nationally recognized for their extensive research and groundbreaking discoveries, which continue to transform the field of cancer care. Each day, we gain more ground in understanding what causes healthy cells to become cancerous and, when they do, the most effective ways to treat the resulting cancer. A recipient of the prestigious designation of Comprehensive Cancer Center from the National Cancer Institute, Moffitt consistently achieves patient outcomes that exceed national averages, and we ensure that our patients have the best possible quality of life. Through our robust clinical trials program, we offer our patients unique opportunities to be among the first to benefit from promising new treatments that are not yet available elsewhere. 

The multispecialty team in Moffitt’s gynecological clinic helps many women understand their risk of developing vulvar cancer and their options for risk reduction, early detection and treatment. Our patients can receive advice, treatment, support and multiple expert opinions in a single location.

If you would like to learn more about vulvar cancer causes and risk factors, a specialist in our gynecological clinic can provide detailed information and create an individualized risk profile for you. To request an appointment, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit anew patient registration form online. No referral is necessary.