A study published in the March 2001 issue of the journal Cutis suggested that healthcare providers should more closely examine causes of women's reports of vulvar pain, especially as in some cases the pain may be an indication of vulvar cancer.
While vulvar cancer is uncommon, it is markedly increasing among women under 45 in several countries including the United States seemingly due to links with HPV and smoking. Whereas vulvar cancer typically has high five-year survival rates when detected early, diagnoses of vulvar cancer are often delayed by as much as one to two years due to both patient and physician neglect of symptoms.
Over the past two decades, many medical reports in peer-reviewed journals have suggested that healthcare providers teach women about vulvar anatomy as well as how to perform vulvar self-examinations. It is recommended that vulvar self-exams be performed once each month in between menstrual periods.
Women should look for any changes in appearance (such as developing whitened or reddened patches of skin), feel (areas of the vulva becoming itchy or painful), or the development of lumps, moles, freckles, cuts or sores on their vulvar skin. While most symptoms will NOT be cancerous, it is important for women to report all changes to their healthcare provider at the earliest opportunity. Women may also need to be persistent about getting a diagnosis as previous research has uncovered that many women with vulvar cancer may see multiple physicians prior to getting a diagnosis.
"Vulvar self-exams are important tools for early detection of vulvar disorders and vulvar cancer," according to Debby Herbenick of the Vulvar Health Awareness Campaign. "Unfortunately, many patients and healthcare providers may feel too awkward to talk about the vulva and women may suffer needlessly because of this silence. Vulvar health should be regarded no differently than breast or heart health."
While most cases of vulvar pain will NOT be related to cancer, it is important for women to follow-up on their vulvar symptoms with qualified healthcare providers.
Vulvodynia is the medical term used to describe vulvar pain and it is estimated that as many as 15% of women may meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of Vulvar Vestibulitis (a subset of vulvadynia). Even when a woman's vulvar pain, discomfort or other symptoms turn out to be something other than cancer, there are various other vulvar disorders that she should be tested for.
Source: Debby Herbenick Vulvar Health Awareness Campaign