Monday, September 09, 2013


Rare women’s cancers cannot be ignored

In today’s world, everyone has heard something about the many types of cancer that exist. Breast cancer is a prime of example of a cancer that has a high degree of awareness.

But there are a few cancers that for some are uncomfortable to talk about that people are dealing with every day: cancer of the vulva, cancer of the anus or cancer of the penis to mention a few. 

A co-worker of mine approached me a few months ago, and confided in me that she had stage 4 cancer of the vulva.  I knew it was possible to get cancer anywhere on the body, but I never knew anybody who had been diagnosed with that particular cancer before.  

She felt so vulnerable and alone, explaining that it was a rare cancer, people didn’t talk about it, and she didn’t have any support system.  I thought she was quite brave to reveal this very personal problem.  She decided to go public with her personal struggle to help convince parents to have their young girls vaccinated with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, and bring awareness of this type of cancer.

I subsequently did some research and discovered cancer of the vulva is indeed a rare tumor; The American Cancer Society statistics report that approximately 4,700 women in the United States are afflicted annually. It forms in a woman’s external genitalia. Fortunately, vulvar cancer is highly curable if detected at an early stage.

Some of the warning signs and symptoms are:

•  persistent itching, burning, or bleeding on the vulva.
•  skin changes including what looks like warts or rash
•  pelvic pain or pressure especially during urination or after intercourse.

Any of these signs should be reported to your health care provider for evaluation.

Protection from infection with the Human Papilloma Virus including an HPV vaccination reduces the risk of vulvar cancer. Examination of the vulva for changes by a woman at home or by her gynecologist during her annual pelvic examination can lead to the detection of pre-invasive disease or early vulvar cancer. Suspicious or unexplained changes on the vulva should be biopsied.

Should my pre-teen-aged daughter get the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine?  This is a dilemma many parents face.  One of the barriers for making this decision is that the optimum time for getting the vaccine is before the girl becomes sexually active, 11-16 years of age.  Most parents do not want to deal with the fact that their child will become sexually active. 

As a parent of a daughter, I understand that.  But the truth of the matter is that this age group has the best response of the immune system.  The older the girl is, the less effective the immune response is to the vaccine.  This is certainly a discussion all parents should have with their health care provider.

The Foundation for Women’s Cancer has good information and has created a very interesting video called, “What every woman should know” on their website

Bringing awareness of these “unmentionable” cancers is so important to make survivors feel supported and spread their message of the prevention measures we should all be aware of.  This health column is a good place to start spreading the word.

Alice Facente is a community education nurse for the Backus Health System. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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