Treatment for cancer of the vulva
The main treatments for vulval cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Your doctors will plan your treatment based on the stage of the cancer, your age and general health.
The aim of surgery is to remove the cancer. The type of surgery depends on the size and position of the cancer. There are different types of surgery, such as:
- Wide local excision: In this surgery, the cancer cells are removed as well as a border area of 1cm around it.
- Radical local excision: In this surgery, the cancer and a larger border area around it are removed. The surgery may include removing the lymph nodes as well.
- Partial vulvectomy: In this surgery, part of the vulva is removed.
- Total or radical vulvectomy: In this surgery, the entire vulva and the surrounding lymph glands are removed.
- A pelvic exenteration: If the cancer has spread beyond the vulva, the affected organs are removed. For example, the cervix or part of the lower bowel or bladder.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells in your vagina. It can be given before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant). There are also different ways to give radiotherapy. You may be given it internally or externally.
See the booklet Understanding Radiotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information, or learn more about radiotherapy here.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to cure or control cancer. It is often given after surgery (adjuvant) and can be used alone or with radiotherapy. The drugs usually used in the treatment of vaginal cancer include:
See the booklet Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs, which you can download from our "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information, or learn more about chemotherapy here.
Advanced cancer is when the cancer has spread to other tissues and organs. If it spreads in the area around the vulva, it is called local spread. It can also spread to distant areas of the body. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer.
Sadly, it is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment can be given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. Treatments can involve radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
You may also be seen by the palliative care team at this time. This team are there to help with your symptoms and to support you and your family through your treatment.
The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Your doctor and nurse will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment. Some treatments may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. If your lymph nodes are removed, you may develop swelling in your groin or legs. This is called lymphoedema.
Radiotherapy to the pelvis may cause long-term changes to the organs there. These can include pain, bleeding, swelling, and a change in bowel habits.
Most women feel shocked and upset at the thought of surgery to the vulva. The trauma of the surgery and the cancer diagnosis as well as the treatment can all affect your sex life. Your nurse or doctor can discuss this further with you and offer advice.
For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklets Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs, Understanding Radiotherapy, Coping with Fatigue, Diet and Cancer and Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer, all available to download under the "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" list on the right hand side of this page.
If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.
Call our National Cancer Helpline
Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm