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Cancer Health Center

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Vulvar Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Treatment Option Overview


In a multicenter case series, 403 patients with primary vulvar squamous cell cancers smaller than 4 cm and clinically negative groin nodes underwent 623 sentinel node dissections using radioactive tracer and blue dye for sentinel node identification.[7] All patients had radical resection of the primary tumor. Node metastases were identified in 26% of sentinel node procedures, and these patients went on to full inguinofemoral lymphadenectomy. The patients with negative sentinel nodes were followed with no further therapy.

Local morbidity was much lower in patients who underwent sentinel node dissection than in patients with positive sentinel nodes who also underwent inguinofemoral lymphadenectomy (wound breakdown 11.7% vs. 34.0%; cellulitis 4.5% vs. 21.3%; chronic lymphedema 1.9% vs. 25.2%, respectively) (P < .0001 for all comparisons). Mean hospital stay was also shorter (8.4 vs. 13.7 days) (P < .0001). After two local recurrences in 17 patients with multifocal primary tumors, the protocol was amended to only allow patients with unifocal tumors into the study. Actuarial groin recurrence for all patients with negative sentinel node dissections at 2 years was 3% (95% confidence interval [CI], 1%-6%) and 2% (95% CI, 1%-5%) for those with unifocal primary tumors.[7][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv]

Therefore, sentinel node dissection may be useful when performed by a surgeon experienced in the procedure, and it may avoid the need for full groin node dissection or radiation in patients with clinically nonsuspicious lymph nodes. (Refer to the Role of Radiation Therapy section of this summary for more information.)

Role of Radiation Therapy

Groin lymph node metastases are present in approximately 20% to 35% of patients with tumors clinically confined to the vulva and with clinically negative nodes.[7,8] Lymph node dissection is traditionally part of the primary surgical therapy in all but the smallest tumors. However, a major cause of morbidity after surgery is groin node dissection, which is associated with high rates of wound breakdown, lymphocele formation, and chronic lymphedema. Some investigators recommend radiation therapy as a means to avoid the morbidity of lymph node dissection, but it is not clear whether radiation therapy can achieve the same local control rates or survival rates as lymph node dissection in early stage disease.

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