Early stage vulvar cancer may not have any symptoms. But if symptoms do occur, they may include persistent vulvar itching and changes to the skin of the vulva.

Vulvar cancer is cancer that affects the exterior part of the female genitals, which is collectively referred to as the vulva. It’s a rare type of cancer, with only 6,470 new diagnoses expected to be made in the United States in 2023.

In general, the outlook for people with cancer is improved when it’s diagnosed and treated early. Understanding the early symptoms of vulvar cancer and knowing when to contact a doctor can help you receive an early diagnosis and treatment.

This article reviews the early and late symptoms of vulvar cancer, as well as other conditions vulvar cancer might be mistaken for, and how vulvar disorders are diagnosed.

Infographic comparing the symptoms of vulvar cancer to other cancers in the pelvic regionShare on Pinterest
Vulvar cancer symptom comparison. Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

Some people with early stage vulvar cancer may not have any symptoms. When symptoms are present, they’re typically associated with changes to the skin of the vulva.

For example, you may notice a thickening of the skin of your vulva. Additionally, some areas of skin may have a different appearance, such as being red, white, or lighter or darker than surrounding skin.

Some people with early stage vulvar cancer may also experience itching in the area of their vulva. This itching is often persistent and doesn’t go away.

If you notice any concerning changes to skin of your vulva, make an appointment with a doctor. While your symptoms may not be due to vulvar cancer, they may signal another health condition that needs attention.

Do Pap smears (Pat tests) detect vulvar cancer?

A Pap smear can’t detect vulvar cancer. There’s no simple, reliable way to screen for vulvar cancer. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor if you notice any changes around your vulva that are new or concerning to you.

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As vulvar cancer progresses, you may begin to experience additional symptoms. These can include:

Vulvar cancer can also spread to more distant organs and tissues. This is called metastasis and can lead to symptoms such as:

What are the risk factors for vulvar cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases your risk of developing a health condition. The known risk factors for vulvar cancer are:

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Vulvar cancer symptoms overlap with those of other health conditions. As such, it may be misdiagnosed, leading to delayed treatment and poorer outlook. A 2018 study notes that delays in diagnosis can range from 6 to 22 months.

Some examples of the benign health conditions that can have similar symptoms to those of vulvar cancer are:

Other precancerous and cancerous conditions can also lead to symptoms comparable to those of vulvar cancer. This includes vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia and Paget’s disease of the vulva.

While their most common symptoms are often different, other cancers of the female reproductive system may also have some symptom overlap with vulvar cancer, such as pain, abnormal bleeding, and urinary changes. Examples are:

If you develop new or concerning symptoms, the only way to find out what may be causing them is to see a doctor. They can do tests to find out what’s causing your symptoms and also determine an appropriate treatment plan.

During the initial part of the diagnostic process, a doctor will get your medical history and do a physical exam. During this time, they may also do:

If vulvar cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be collected. This is the gold standard for the diagnosis of vulvar cancer. A biopsy sample can be evaluated under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.

If cancer cells are found, additional testing of the sample can also help to further characterize the cancer, which can help doctors determine your treatment plan and outlook. Imaging tests may also be used to understand the extent of the cancer and can include:

Early vulvar cancer may not have any noticeable symptoms. When symptoms are present, they typically include itching of the vulva and changes to the skin of your vulva.

The outlook for someone with vulvar cancer is better when it’s diagnosed and treated early. Because of this, it’s important to see a doctor if you notice any changes to your vulva that are new or concerning.