The vulva is the name given to all the visible sex organs that surround the opening of the vagina.
Cancer of the vulva is rare. Just over 1,300 women are diagnosed with it each year in the UK. Vulval cancer is sometimes called vulvar cancer and can affect any part of the external female sex organs.
Types of vulval cancer
There are different types of vulval cancer.
The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma. It can take many years to develop. It usually starts with pre-cancerous changes to the outer layer of the skin cells of the vulva. 9 in 10 vulval cancers (90%) are squamous cell carcinomas.
Verrucous carcinoma is a very rare, slow-growing type of squamous cell carcinoma that looks like a large wart.
Other types of vulval cancer include:
MelanomaMelanoma is the second most common type of vulval cancer. Melanomas develop from cells that produce the pigment that gives skin its colour. Around 5 in 100 vulval cancers (5%) are melanomas.
Basal cell carcinomaThis type of vulval cancer is rare. It develops from cells called basal cells that are found in the deepest layer of the skin of the vulva. Around 2 in 100 vulval cancers (2%) are basal cell carcinomas.
SarcomaThis type of vulval cancer is rare. Sarcomas develop from cells in tissue such as muscle, fat or blood vessels under the skin. They tend to grow more quickly than other types of vulval cancer. Around 1 to 2 in 100 vulval cancers (1 to 2%) are sarcomas.
AdenocarcinomaThis is very rare. Adenocarcinoma of the vulva develops from cells that line the glands in the vulval skin.
Bartholin gland cancerThis type of vulval cancer is extremely rare. It develops in the Bartholin glands at the opening of the vagina.
To diagnose vulval cancer you may have:
You may also have other tests including tests and scans to look at your lymph nodes. These may include a sentinel lymph node biopsy.
We have more information about diagnosing vulval cancer and lymph node assessment.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that can help.
Staging and grading of vulval cancer
The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread beyond the area where it first started.
The grade gives doctors an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow and spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your cancer doctor advise you on the best treatment for you.
We have more detailed information about the staging and grading of vulval cancer.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments. We have more detailed information about how vulval cancer is treated.
Treatments may include:
You may also have treatment as part of a clinical trial.
After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups with your cancer doctor or nurse. Your appointments will usually be every few months at first. Later they may only be once a year.
Some people have a vulval skin condition such as vulval lichen sclerosus (LS) or vulval lichen planus (LP) before vulval cancer. If so, you should continue to see your specialist for those conditions too. After cancer treatment, you may still need ongoing treatment for the skin. Your specialist will advise you about this.
Many people find that they get quite anxious before their appointments. You may worry about the cancer coming back. This is natural. It can help to get support from family, friends or your specialist nurse.