What are the risk factors for vulvar cancer?
The most common risk factor for vulvar cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Doctors believe at least half of vulvar cancers are caused by HPV infection.
You can contract HPV by coming in contact with the mouth, genitals or anus of an infected person. Unfortunately, other than genital warts, there is no way of knowing whether a sexual partner has HPV.
Other risk factors for developing vulvar cancer include:
- Age. The average age of women diagnosed with vulvar cancer is 70.
- Having a history of genital warts.
- Being infected with HIV.
- Having many sexual partners.
- Having sex at an early age.
- Having vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). This is a pre-cancer that can evolve into vulvar cancer (invasive vulvar cancer) over time.
- Having cervical cancer.
- Having had melanoma or having a family history of melanoma.
What can you do to prevent cervical cancer?
There is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer. However, because most vulvar cancers are caused by infection with HPV, you can reduce your risk for vulvar cancer by using protection (such as a condom) during sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
Condoms cannot provide complete protection against HPV, but they can significantly lower your risk of infection.
You can also lower your risk with the HPV vaccine. This vaccine targets the high-risk types of HPV that cause vulvar cancers. It is not meant for women who are already infected with HPV. Ask your doctor about the vaccine and whether it’s something that is safe for you to receive.
Stopping smoking may also reduce your risk for vulvar cancer.
Is vulvar cancer screening available?
Getting regular pelvic exams and Pap tests with your doctor can help find early signs of vulvar cancer. These exams check for abnormalities in the genital area as well as the organs in the pelvis. If your doctor suspects you may have cancer, you and your doctor will work together on follow-up tests and screenings.
During a pelvic exam, your doctor will check the vagina and vulva for any signs of cancer or disease. He or she may also conduct an internal exam. During this procedure, your doctor will insert a lubed finger into the vagina while he or she feels the lower abdomen with the other hand.
During a Pap smear, your doctor inserts a lubricated instrument into the vagina to widen the opening. Then, he or she will gently scrape your cervix to collect a sample of mucus. The mucus is sent to a lab where a pathologist checks for abnormal cells or signs of cancer.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about the right time is to start regular pelvic exams and Pap tests. How often you have screenings will depend on your risk factors, medical history, and whether you’ve had an abnormal test result in the past.