Lichen sclerosus is a skin condition that can increase your risk of cancer. It’s not a type of cancer on its own, but treating this condition can help you prevent vulvar cancer.

Lichen sclerosus causes symptoms like itching, pain, and patches that form on the skin around your genitals. Treatment for the condition typically involves strong corticosteroids.

Read on to learn more about the link between lichen sclerosus and cancer.

Lichen sclerosus is a chronic skin condition that mostly affects postmenopausal people. But lichen sclerosus can affect people of any gender and any age, especially people with vulvas.

Lichen sclerosus is directly associated with an increased risk of vulvar cancer.

Vulvar cancer is a type of skin cancer that forms around the genitals in areas like the labia or clitoris. Less than 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed in women each year are vulvar cancer.

About 4 percent of women who have lichen sclerosus will develop vulvar cancer.

This means that people with lichen sclerosus have a much higher risk of vulvar cancer than people who don’t have it. But it may take years for the cancer to develop after a case of lichen sclerosus.

Getting effective medical care and treatment of lichen sclerosus is believed to help to reduce the risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Symptoms of lichen sclerosus include:

  • itching
  • discomfort
  • pain
  • smooth white patches on your skin near your genitals and anus
  • pain during urination
  • pain during sex
  • easy bruising in your genital area
  • easy blistering in your pelvic area

Symptoms of vulvar cancer can be difficult to spot at first. You might also not have any symptoms when the cancer first develops.

When symptoms do appear, they often include:

  • a lump or bump on or near your vulva
  • a mole on your vulva that changes in color or shape
  • itching
  • burning
  • pain
  • unusual vaginal discharge that can have an odor
  • vaginal bleeding that isn’t connected to menstruation
  • raised patches of skin on your vulva that are a different color than the skin around them

Researchers aren’t sure what causes lichen sclerosus.

But they do know that it’s not contagious. You can’t get it from sexual activity, sharing clothing, or any other physical contact with a person who has it.

Researchers believe that lichen sclerosus might be linked to:

Other risk factors for vulvar cancer include:

  • smoking
  • genital warts
  • human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, a condition that happens when skin cells on your vulva change as a response to inflammation or viral infections like HPV
  • being over 60
  • having never given birth
  • previous radiation treatments on your pelvic region
  • previous vaginal or cervical cancer

Lichen sclerosus is normally diagnosed with a physical examination and conversation about your medical history with a doctor.

To diagnose vulvar cancer, you’ll first need a biopsy. A biopsy can help your medical team determine what kind of cancer you have. It’ll also confirm that your symptoms are caused by vulvar cancer and not another condition.

During a biopsy, a piece of affected tissue is removed from your vulva and sent to a laboratory to be analyzed in order to confirm the diagnosis of vulvar cancer.

You might also have lab work done to look at your levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and other important health indicators.

In some cases, a doctor might order imaging tests to see if the cancer has spread and to get images of any internal tumors. Some possible imaging tests include:

Lichen sclerosus is treated with prescription corticosteroid creams. Treatment is meant to help manage your symptoms, prevent scarring, and reduce the risk of cancer.

Because lichen sclerosus is often associated with inflammation of the skin, first-line treatment typically includes the use of prescription corticosteroid creams to help restore the integrity of the tissue. Steroid treatment may also help reduce some of the symptoms such itchiness, irritation, and burning.

Treatment with steroids may take a long time, sometimes months to years. It’s important to have close follow-up and regular surveillance with your doctor to make sure the condition doesn’t progress or advance into something more serious like cancer.

If vulvar cancer develops, treatment depends on the stage of the cancer and your overall health. Some treatments for vulvar cancer include

  • Surgery. Doctors can surgically remove the cancer and surrounding tissue. In some cases, this completely removes the cancer and helps prevent it from coming back.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation can be used both before and after surgery. Before surgery, radiation can shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove. After surgery, radiation can kill any cancerous cells that are still in your body.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells. It’s often used when the cancerous cells have spread beyond the vulva.

Treating lichen sclerosus often helps prevent vulvar cancer from developing.

Among people with vulvar cancer, survival rates are best when the cancer is found early. The 5-year survival rate when cancer hasn’t spread beyond the vulva is 86 percent.

A 2021 review in Gynecologic Oncology suggests that this rate can sometimes be at high as 93 percent. Once cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the groin, the 5-year survival rate lowers to about 53 percent.

Other factors can affect your outlook, including:

  • age
  • overall health
  • response to treatment

Keep in mind that cancer survival statistics are also based on historic data. They’re taken at regular intervals — often about every 5 years — but new cancer treatments are continuously being developed, used, and improved.

Survival rates for all cancers are generally improving as treatment and early detections improve.

Lichen sclerosus isn’t cancer. But it can lead to vulvar cancer.

Treating lichen sclerosus can help prevent the development of this type of cancer. Vulvar cancer is also very treatable when it’s diagnosed in its early stages.

Getting a diagnosis of lichen sclerosus and working with a doctor to create a treatment plan can help prevent the condition from turning into cancer. See a doctor as soon as possible if you have any signs and symptoms of lichen sclerosus.