Annik Archambault is a yoga teacher who recently underwent surgery for vulvar cancer. Vulvar cancer occurs on the skin surrounding the vagina and urethra that includes the labia and clitoris. Annik wound up having part of her labia removed and in the aftermath of this traumatic event penned a love letter to her vagina that has attracted quite a bit of attention since it was published online in early January 2018. The letter itself is incredibly heartfelt and at times heartbreaking, much like life itself. Her resolve is palpable, and her regard for herself and appreciation for this key component of both her physical and spiritual life is unwavering. It’s the kind of life-affirming tome not only every woman, but everyone should read. At the same time, we need to take a look at the cause of her fear and loss: vulvar cancer.
Love Your Vagina By Watching for Signs of Trouble
While Annik’s heartfelt letter to her vagina is incredibly emotional and inspirational, we need to keep in mind that, as she admits, the situation may have been more difficult than it needed to be because she was in a tough emotional space and not paying attention to the goings-on in her vulva. The upside is that when she finally did realize something was amiss, she didn’t waste any time getting the treatment she needed. So two big takeaways here:
- First, have regular pelvic exams so that you can catch things like this before they become life-threatening and
- Second, don’t waste any time in seeking treatment if you discover a problem. Procrastination has cost many women their lives.
That said, what is vulvar cancer? What are the symptoms to look for and what is the most effective response? Below we’ll take a look.
Some symptoms are subtle while others are more obvious. Regardless, if you notice any of the following symptoms, make an appointment to see your Ob/Gyn immediately.
- An itching sensation that does not go away.
- A lump, or a collection of small bumps, or an open sore.
- Tenderness and/or pain in the labia or surrounding area.
- Blood on your underwear that is not from your period.
- A feeling that the labia is becoming tougher or thicker.
- Pain during and after sex.
Again, if you experience one or more of these symptoms don’t ignore them. Make an appointment to see your Ob/Gyn now and have the problem properly diagnosed.
What is known is that cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA of cells. Exactly what mechanism activates these mutations is fairly well understood in some cases and not so well understood in others, like the case of vulvar cancer. Circumstantial evidence points to HPV (human papillomavirus) playing a role, although it would be a mistake to draw a hard and fast connection since research is still ongoing and most women with HPV do not develop this condition.
Two different types of vulvar cancer arise from two different types of cells. Your doctor will be able to make an accurate diagnosis for you. Those types are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma of the vulva – This type of cancer begins in the cells that line the vulva’s surface. These are thin flat cells that seem particularly susceptible to mutation. Most cases of vulvar cancer are carcinomas.
- Melanoma of the vulva – Like all melanomas this one takes root in the skin cells that produce pigment. In this case, the pigment-producing skin cells of the vulva. This type of melanoma is fairly uncommon but no less dangerous.
Potential Risk Factors
So what are the risk factors that are known or suspected to increase a woman’s chances of developing this type of cancer?
- Age – The risk of vulvar cancer increases with age with the average age of diagnosis being 65. However, this doesn’t mean you can ignore symptoms if you’re 45, or even 25. Just that, the odds increase the longer you live.
- Smoking – Smoking is known to increase the risk of virtually every type of cancer that exists. If you want to increase your chances of avoiding this cancer, you’ll quit smoking now.
- HPV – The human papillomavirus (commonly called HPV) is an STD that is believed to increase the risk of developing several types of cancer including cervical and vulvar cancer. Many people carry the HPV virus their entire adult lives without realizing it and unwittingly pass it on to others. While there is no definitive proof that A = B when it comes to HPV and cancer of the vulva if you know you have HPV you should get more frequent pelvic exams as a matter of course.
- A weakened immune system – There are many potential causes for a weak immune system including various medications given to people who have undergone organ transplants. Stress can also have a detrimental effect on your immune system as can fatigue and conditions such as HIV.
- Other precancerous conditions – VIN or Vulvar Intraepithelial Neoplasia is a precancerous condition that is known to increase one’s risk of developing vulvar cancer. In most cases, VIN will not develop into cancer but in some patients, it will. If you have or have had VIN, you should schedule more frequent visits to your Ob/Gyn.
While there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of developing this type of cancer there are some common sense things you should do to reduce that risk including:
- Use condoms – No exceptions. Using condoms will greatly reduce your risk of contracting HPV.
- Get vaccinated – There is an HPV vaccine, and young adults should seriously consider getting it.
- Quit smoking – Quit smoking today, and you’ll reduce your chances of developing vulvar cancer.
Annik Archambault’s love letter to her vagina is both uplifting and a warning to anyone paying attention. Don’t ignore things like vaginal health regardless of what’s going on in your life. There’s too much at stake.