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What is vulval cancer?

The vulva is the name given to all the visible sex organs that surround the opening of the vagina.

Vulval cancer can affect any part of the vulva. Cancer of the vulva is rare. Just over 1,300 women are diagnosed with it each year in the UK. It can affect anyone who has a vulva. This includes women, trans men and people assigned female at birth.

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:

  • Melanoma
    Melanoma 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 carcinoma
    This 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.

  • Sarcoma
    This 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.

  • Adenocarcinoma
    This is very rare. Adenocarcinoma of the vulva develops from cells that line the glands in the vulval skin.

  • Bartholin gland cancer
    This type of vulval cancer is extremely rare. It develops in the Bartholin glands at the opening of the vagina.

Symptoms of vulval cancer

Symptoms of vulval cancer can include burning when passing urine and a sore or ulcerated area on the vulva. We have more information about all the symptoms of vulval cancer.

If you have any symptoms it is important to get them checked by your GP.

Causes of vulval cancer

Doctors do not know exactly what causes vulval cancer. There are certain things that can increase the chance of developing vulval cancer. These are called risk factors.

We have more information about the causes of vulval cancer.

Vulval cancer diagnosis

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.

Treatment for 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:

  • Surgery

    Surgery is the main treatment for vulval cancer. The aim is to remove all of the cancer. There are different types of surgery. We have more information about what happens before and after surgery.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high energy ray to destroy cancer. You may have it before or after surgery for vulval cancer or if you cannot have surgery.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You may have it before surgery, if the cancer has spread or if it comes back after treatment.

You may also have treatment as part of a clinical trial.

After vulval cancer treatment

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.

You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Sex life

Vulval cancer, its treatment and side effects may affect your sex life and how you feel about yourself.

Some treatments can cause an early menopause. We have more information about coping with menopausal symptoms.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Reviewed: 28 February 2018
Reviewed: 28/02/2018
Next review: 30 August 2020
Next review: 30/08/2020

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.