Being diagnosed with vulval cancer

If you have symptoms that might be due to a vulval cancer, your doctor will usually refer you to a specialist in women’s cancers. You may also have a blood test and a chest x-ray to check your general health.

The specialist will examine your vulva. To do this, a nurse will help you position yourself on an examination chair or table. Sometimes leg supports are used. The doctor may use a bright light and a magnifier to examine the vulval area. They will also do an internal examination to look at the vagina and the cervix. Let your doctor know if you feel uncomfortable at any time before or during the examination.

Your doctor will probably remove a small sample of cells (biopsy) from any abnormal areas to be examined under a microscope. This can be done under local or general anaesthetic. You doctor or nurse can tell you more about having a biopsy.

Waiting for test results can be difficult. It may help to talk to someone close to you or one of our cancer support specialists.

How cancer of the vulva is diagnosed

If you have symptoms, you will usually begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you. If they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a doctor who specialises in women’s cancers (gynaecological cancer specialist).

Your GP may also arrange for you to have a blood test and chest x-ray to check your general health.

Vulva cancer

Gail sitting looking down Gail on diagnosis

'The best thing you can do is tell people to see their nurse.'


At the hospital

The specialist will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems you have had. They will also examine your vulval area. They can usually do this during an outpatient appointment.

Vulval examination

The vulva is an intimate and private part of the body. Some women find it embarrassing or upset-ting to have a vulval examination. If you feel this way, let your doctor or nurse know so they can give you support.

Before your test, the doctor or nurse will help you position yourself on a specially designed chair or examination table. There may be special leg supports.

Having a vulval examination
Having a vulval examination

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The doctor may use a bright light and a magnifier to examine your vulva. This helps them see the skin more clearly. They may take small samples of tissue (biopsies) from any areas that look unusual. You may have a local anaesthetic for this.

The doctor will also check your vagina and cervix for any abnormalities. They will use a plastic or metal instrument called a speculum. This holds the vaginal walls open. A liquid will be dabbed on to your cervix to help show any abnormal areas more clearly. You may also have a small sample of cells taken from the cervix. The doctor may also examine your back passage (anus). The specialist can arrange to examine you while you are under a general anaesthetic if:

  • you have narrowing of the vagina due to lichen sclerosus
  • your vulva is too sore for a full examination.

Being diagnosed with cancer

GP David Plume explains what to expect if you're referred by your GP for tests for cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Being diagnosed with cancer

GP David Plume explains what to expect if you're referred by your GP for tests for cancer.

About our cancer information videos


Biopsy

A doctor takes a small sample of tissue from the affected area of the vulva. They send this to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope.

There are two types of biopsy:

  • excisional biopsy
  • punch biopsy.

An excisional biopsy is often used for small areas. The doctor will remove the whole affected area. They may put one or two stitches in the area where they took the biopsy from.

A punch biopsy is often used to take a sample from a larger area. It is done using a small instrument that takes a small core of the affected area. You do not normally need any stitches after a punch biopsy.

Having the biopsy

You usually have a biopsy as an outpatient. Before the biopsy, you will have a local anaesthetic injected into the skin of your vulva to numb it. This may sting for a few seconds. There should not be any pain when the sample of tissue is taken from your vulva, but you may feel a little discomfort.

Occasionally, if your vulval area is very painful, you may have your biopsy taken under a general anaesthetic.

After the biopsy, you may have some bleeding for a few days. This should gradually stop. If it gets worse or continues, tell your doctor. You should use sanitary pads rather than tampons until the bleeding has settled. Keep the area clean by rinsing with water after every bowel movement.

You may also feel sore. Painkillers or a warm bath can help.

It will probably take about 7 to 10 days for the results of your biopsy to be ready. Waiting for your results can be a difficult time. It may help to talk to a relative or close friend.

I have had a few surgeries. After my last operation I could not drive or sit properly for around four weeks, and after that I had to be careful how I sat down. I found that sitting on a rubber ring helped.

Helen, after vulva surgery

Back to How vulva cancer is diagnosed

Further tests after diagnosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with vulval cancer, you will need further tests to find out more about the cancer and your general health.