By now, you know it’s important to wear copious amounts of sunscreen while you’re outdoors. Our skin is our largest organ and skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, so many dermatologists recommend also wearing skin-protecting clothing while basking outdoors.
So, only skin that’s exposed to the sun regularly is at risk for developing skin cancer, right? Not so fast.
Skin cancer can develop anywhere on your body regardless if it’s been exposed to direct sunlight — and yes, that includes skin cancer in the vagina.
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"I've treated a number of women who have vulvar melanoma or vaginal melanoma and none of them have been sunbathing nude," Robert Debernardo, MD, an ob-gyn at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health.
Skin cancer in the vagina: What you need to know
A woman’s vagina is technically only the tube that leads from the outside of the body to the cervix of the uterus, but the term is often used as a catch-all term the female inner and outer genitalia.
That said, the two most common forms of skin cancer in the vagina can happen both in the inner and outer genitalia.
According to the American Cancer Society, nearly nine out of 10 cases of skin cancer in the vagina are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cell carcinomas start inside in the vagina — in the epithelial lining near the cervix. It can spread through the vaginal wall — and to other parts of the body if it’s not caught and treated early.
Squamous cell carcinomas typically affects older women after menopause, Dr. Debernardo told Health, but younger women can get some forms related to HPV.
The other form of skin cancer in the vagina is melanoma.
Melanoma "is the kind of skin cancer that we all fear," Dr. Debernardo told Health. "It starts with melanocytes, which is the pigmented cell."
The good news is that vulvar melanomas are rare, according to the American Cancer Society, only making up about six out of every 100 vulvar cancer cases.
Adenocarcinoma is another vulvar cancer that typically starts in the cells of the Bartholin glands near the opening of the vagina, or in the vulvar sweat glands, according to the ACS. It occurs in about eight of every 100 vulvar cancer cases, but is often confused for a cyst.
How to check for skin cancer in the vagina
Worried about developing skin cancer in your nether regions? It’s rare, but it’s not easy to spot.
"That’s the problem with the majority of cancers, including melanoma—it doesn’t really hurt," Larisa J. Geskin, MD, a dermatologist at Columbia University Medical Center, told Health.
"Having said that, sometimes our own bodies recognize these spots as malignant or abnormal, and have an immune reaction against cancer, and can be symptomatic, with itching or irritation around the spot."
Your best bet to catching skin cancer in the vagina is to make regular visits to the OB-GYN — and keep an eye out for skin changes (like new moles or darkened skin) in the area.
"The best prevention is early diagnosis," added Dr. Debernardo. "The bottom line is you need to keep an eye on this area. If something looks different to you or funny, get ahold of a gynecologist."