Marisa Strupp, 29, first noticed a bump on her inner labia in March 2018. She saw a dermatologist who said it was likely fine but recommended that she see a gynaecologist, just to be safe. Strupp scheduled an appointment and the bump was removed and sent for testing.
The results were completely unexpected: She had stage 2 vulvar melanoma, a rare type of skin cancer. “I was incredibly scared,” Strupp told Prevention US. “I never knew you could get melanoma down there and I had no idea how far the cancer progressed. I was very much so paralysed with fear because I had no idea what the cancer was or what caused it.”
What is vulvar melanoma, exactly?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the melanocytes, the cells that produce the pigment melanin. Melanoma “most commonly occurs in sun-exposed areas, as UV light exposure is the biggest risk factor,” explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Centre.
But people can still develop melanoma in other areas of the body. “While less common, melanoma can develop in non-exposed areas like the genitals or even the soles of the feet,” Dr. Zeichner says.
Vulvar melanoma starts on the skin of the labia minora (inner lips), the labia majora (outer lips), and the perineum (skin between the vagina and the anus), according to Cancer Council Australia. This form of cancer is rare and accounts for less than 2 per cent of melanomas in women, typically those who are past menopause.
How is vulvar melanoma treated?
When it’s found early, melanoma is highly treatable. But if it goes undetected, it can spread to other parts of the body and even become deadly, per The Australasian College of Dermatologists. In fact, melanoma accounts for a majority of skin cancer deaths.
Typically, vulvar melanoma is treated by removing the tumour and a rim of healthy tissue around it, along with lymph node removal. But in some cases, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or immunotherapy may also be needed.
The cancer did spread to Strupp’s lymph nodes, requiring surgery and a year of immunotherapy treatments. “I just finished my last treatment this past September,” she says.
Still, she has not yet been declared cancer-free. “There are a lot of steps before that can happen, but I am almost there!” she says. Strupp has another round of scans in the next few days and, from there, her oncologist will come up with a five-year plan.
Strupp says she hopes that others can learn from her story. “Being open and able to talk to your doctor about issues down there isn’t easy,” she says. “If you are worried about something, please go and have a medical opinion so you can be sure.”
While it’s “still unclear” how she developed vulvar melanoma, Strupp emphasises that “you can get melanoma anywhere. Knowledge is truly power. Be your own health advocate.”
So take this as your cue to get up close and personal with yourself once a month. Grab a hand-held mirror and look for any unusual spots (like these signs of skin cancer). If you notice any pigmented lesions—especially an area that seems to be growing quickly with irregular borders, thickness, or colours—get it checked out by your doctor ASAP.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.