The vulva and lymphatic system

The vulva

The vulva is the area of skin between a woman’s legs. It’s made up of all the visible sex organs.

The vulva includes:

  • two outer lips (the labia majora), which surround two inner lips (the labia minora)
  • the clitoris, which is a small structure at the front of the vulva – it’s a sexual organ that helps women reach climax (orgasm)
  • the opening of the urethra – this is just behind the clitoris and is where urine comes out
  • the vaginal opening (birth canal).

Further back under the legs is the opening to the back passage (anus). The area of skin between the vulva and the anus is called the perineum.

The area where the skin creases at the top of each leg is called the groin. The groin contains lymph nodes, which are part of the lymphatic system.

Vulva with lymph nodes
Vulva with lymph nodes

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The lymphatic system

Your lymphatic system helps to protect you from infection and disease. It’s part of the body’s immune system. It is made up of fine tubes called lymphatic vessels. These connect to groups of bean-shaped lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) all over the body.

A liquid called lymph travels around the body in the lymphatic vessels. As it does, the lymph nodes filter out any bacteria (germs) and disease from the fluid. Once the lymph is filtered, it goes back into the blood. If you have an infection, such as a sore throat, the lymph nodes close by often swell while they fight it.

Sometimes, cancer can spread through the lymphatic system. If vulval cancer spreads to the lymphatic system, it’s most likely to go to the lymph nodes in the groin.

Female pelvic lymph nodes
Female pelvic lymph nodes

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Back to Understanding vulva cancer

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Types of vulval cancer

Cancer of the vulva is rare. There are different types of vulval cancer. The most common is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Why do cancers come back?

Sometimes, tiny cancer cells are left behind after cancer treatment. These can divide to form a new tumour.