We performed a study to estimate incidence of vulvar cancer in women with vulvar symptoms (irritation, pain, bleeding +/− presence of lesion) referred to a secondary care, rapid‐access clinic.
Prospective data collection of all direct referrals from a primary to a secondary care gynecological oncology clinic from 2011 to 2016, for women with suspicious vulvar symptoms.
32/393 (8.1%) women had vulvar cancer, and 24/393 (6.1%) had a premalignant lesion. Multivariate logistic regression showed that women referred without a specific lesion had considerably lower odds of a diagnosis of vulvar cancer than those with a lesion (OR=0.11, 95% CI: 0.03–0.49). In total, 30/234 (12.8%) women with a vulvar lesion (mass or ulcer), had vulvar cancer, compared with 2/159 (1.3%) of those referred without a lesion (these patients had vulvar irritation and bleeding but had a visible lesion on examination). None of the 140 women with irritation alone, in the absence of a visible lesion or bleeding, had pre‐invasive disease or cancer.
Presence of a vulvar lesion, especially if painful/bleeding, has a high positive predictive value for vulvar cancer and 12.8% of women presenting with any vulvar lesion to secondary care had cancer.
Overall, 32/393 (8.1%) women referred with vulvar symptoms were diagnosed with a malignancy and a further 24/393 (6.1%) were diagnosed with a pre‐malignant lesion. The presence of a suspicious vulvar lesion, especially if symptomatic, was associated with a cancer diagnosis in 30/234 (12.8%) women. Unless the lesion is obviously benign (which in this series included: sebaceous inclusion cyst; urethral caruncle; inspissated sebaceous material trapped under the clitoral hood; and ecchymosis on a background of lichen sclerosus), a rapid‐access clinic referral is appropriate to exclude a malignancy in these women. A larger cohort would be required to stratify risk by age. However, as the incidence of vulvar cancer is increasing, especially in younger women, it would be important not to dismiss suspicious symptoms based on age alone.
Women without a visible lesion were extremely unlikely to have cancer, based on this cohort of patients (<1.3% depending on whether presence of lesion was defined by patient/primary care [0/159] vs secondary care (2/159). However, these findings would need to be applied to a larger population to test this hypothesis and with wider generalization to other healthcare populations. One strength of this dataset is that the population is well‐defined and relatively stable, so re‐referrals, subsequently diagnosed with a cancer, would have been referred back to the same clinic. In the present series, six women were re‐referred during the study period (one woman was seen three times and five women were seen twice). None of these women had a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, we were not able to define an average lead time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis from our data, since this was not reliably recorded.
Many women with symptoms of vulvar soreness and irritation, in the absence of a specific lesion, were diagnosed with an inflammatory condition; half had lichen sclerosus or lichen planus. Primary care physicians should be reassured that, in the absence of a suspicious lesion, a cancer diagnosis or a pre‐malignant condition was unlikely. As per dermatology guidelines, if there are classical signs of lichen sclerosis, a diagnostic biopsy is not needed if there is a response to high‐potency topical steroids. Women whose symptoms do not start to improve after 2–3 weeks of treatment, should be re‐assessed and referred if symptoms persist or a lesion develops.
The overall incidence of vulvar cancer in this series was slightly lower than in those in the literature. This is perhaps surprising, as the local population is relatively elderly; in the 2011 census 29.1% of West Somerset were aged 65 years or over compared with a UK average of 16.4%. However, this series is nearly 10‐fold larger than those previously published, so may reflect the increased statistical power of this study. It may also reflect a difference in local referral patterns and criteria, since women may be referred to a general gynecology clinic or a dermatologist in other areas. One study from an urban area in the South East of England looked at cancer diagnosis rates in women referred to a gynecologic fast‐track clinic. They included a total of 335 women referred to secondary care. Only 18 women had symptoms suggestive of vulvar cancer, of whom only two (11.1%) were diagnosed with vulvar cancer. A similar study, also from the South East of England, included only 13 women with vulvar symptoms and found a positive predictive value of a cancer diagnosis of 15.4% in this subset. A further series of women with suspected gynecologic malignancy, also from the South East of England, included 1105 women referred to secondary care. Forty‐four of these women were referred with suspected vulvo‐vaginal cancer and 13.6% were diagnosed with a malignancy.
These data help to differentiate between those who should be referred via a fast‐track clinic and those who could be treated more conservatively for vulvar symptoms, and could help to inform national guidance—including future updates of NICE guidelines. Further data would be required to determine whether these data had wider applicability in other, more diverse populations, and these data are limited by the secondary care focus of this study. It would be interesting to compare rates of women presenting with vulvar symptoms in a primary care population with secondary care referrals and cancer incidence in that population over the same time period to provide evidence for triage of those requiring rapid assessment. This is important in the face of the increasing incidence of vulvar cancer, due to changes in demographics and HPV prevalence.
Finally, many women delay presentation and may have significant symptoms for many months, due to fear, embarrassment or lack of awareness of vulvar conditions generally, and vulvar cancer in particular. Many women in our series had inappropriate treatment for vulvar skin conditions or suspicious lesions with low potency steroids, topical estrogens, anti‐fungal agents, antibiotics, or no treatment at all for prolonged periods. This may be due to ‘home remedy’ self‐treatment (possibly fueled by lack of knowledge and advertisements for ‘intimate itching’), avoidance of doctors, or reluctance to use adequate courses of high potency topical steroids, by both physicians and the women affected. Research is also needed to inform us about barriers to presentation, especially in older women, who are most at risk of vulvar cancers, and to improve health education for this under‐resourced area.
Feature image credit @DiggerGraham (see below).