The difference between vaginal and vulvar cancers
Vagina and vulvar cancer are both rare types of gynaecological cancers. Cancer is named after the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other parts of the body later.
When cancer starts in the vagina, it is called vaginal cancer. The vagina is a muscular tube that connects your uterus with the female outer genitals. Vaginal cancer most commonly occurs in the cells that line the surface of the vagina, also sometimes called the birth canal.
When cancer forms in the vulva, it is called vulvar cancer. Vulvar cancer may also be called vulval cancer, cancer of the vulva or vulva cancer. Vulvar cancer occurs in any part of the external female genitals, which is usually the labia minora (inner lips), the labia majora (outer lips), and the perineum (skin between the vagina and the anus).
Vaginal and vulvar cancers are rare. Vaginal cancer is the most rare, affecting about 100 women per year in Australia. Vulvar cancer will be diagnosed in approximately 400 women each year. Vaginal and vulvar cancer most commonly affect postmenopausal women, however both cancer types can also occur in younger women too.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer
- Blood-stained vaginal discharge that is not related to menstrual bleeding, and may have an unusual smell
- Pain during or bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area or rectum
- A lump in the vagina
- Problems with passing urine, such as blood in the urine, and the need to pass urine frequently or during the night.
Symptoms of vulvar cancer
- A lump on the vulva. Most patients present with a fleshy, nodular or warty mass, plaque or ulcer on the labia.
- Persistent itching, tenderness or burning of the vulva that does not go away.
- Changes in the skin of the vulva, including colour changes or growths that look like a wart or ulcer.
- Abnormal bleeding.
Women with suspected vaginal or vulvar cancer should see their GP and request a gynaecological examination. Any visible lesion should be biopsied under local anaesthetic in the office. If the findings are unclear or suspicious, a patient should be evaluated by a gynaecologist who might consider referring the patient for a gynaecological oncology opinion. Vulvar and vaginal cancer is most commonly treated with surgery.
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