Conference Coverage

Beware “The Great Mimicker” that can lurk in the vulva



LAS VEGAS – Officially a type of precancerous lesion is known as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN); unofficially, an obstetrician-gynecologist calls it something else: “The Great Mimicker.” That’s because symptoms of VIN can fool physicians into thinking they’re seeing other vulvar conditions. The good news: A biopsy can offer crucial insight and should be performed on any dysplastic or unusual lesion on the vulva.

Dr. Amanda NIckles Fader Courtesy Cashman Photo

Dr. Amanda NIckles Fader

Amanda Nickles Fader, MD, of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, offered this advice and other tips about this type of precancerous vulvar lesion in a presentation at the Pelvic Anatomy and Gynecologic Surgery Symposium.

According to Dr. Nickles Fader, vulvar cancer accounts for 5% of all gynecologic malignancies, and it appears most in women aged 65-75 years. However, about 15% of all vulvar cancers appear in women under the age of 40 years. “We’re seeing a greater number of premenopausal women with this condition, probably due to HPV [human papillomavirus],” she said, adding that HPV vaccines are crucial to prevention.

The VIN form of precancerous lesion is most common in premenopausal women (75%) and – like vulvar cancer – is linked to HPV infection, HIV infection, cigarette smoking, and weakened or suppressed immune systems, Dr. Nickles Faber said at the meeting jointly provided by Global Academy for Medical Education and the University of Cincinnati. Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same company.

VIN presents with symptoms such as pruritus, altered vulvar appearance at the site of the lesion, palpable abnormality, and perineal pain or burning. About 40% of cases do not show symptoms and are diagnosed by gynecologists at annual visits.

It’s important to biopsy these lesions, she said, because they can mimic other conditions such as vulvar cancer, condyloma acuminatum (genital warts), lichen sclerosus, lichen planus, and condyloma latum (a lesion linked to syphilis).

“Biopsy, biopsy, biopsy,” she urged.

In fact, one form of VIN – differentiated VIN – is associated with dermatologic conditions such as lichen sclerosus, and treatment of these conditions can prevent development of this VIN type.

As for treatment, Dr. Nickles Faber said surgery is the mainstay. About 90% of the time, wide local excision is the “go-to” approach, although the skinning vulvectomy procedure may be appropriate in lesions that are more extensive or multifocal and confluent. “It’s a lot more disfiguring.”

Laser ablation is a “very reasonable” option when cancer has been eliminated as a possibility, she said. It may be appropriate in multifocal or extensive lesions and can have important cosmetic advantages when excision would be inappropriate.

Off-label use of imiquimod 5%, a topical immune response modifier, can be appropriate in multifocal high-grade VINs, but it’s crucial to exclude invasive squamous cell carcinoma. As she noted, imiquimod is Food and Drug Administration–approved for anogenital warts but not for VIN. Beware of toxicity over the long term.

Dr. Nickles Fader reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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