What is cancer?

Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the body’s organs and tissues. Cells receive signals from the body, telling them when to grow and when to divide to make new cells. This is how our bodies grow and heal. These cells can become old, damaged or no longer needed. When this happens, the cell gets a signal from the body to stop working and die.

Sometimes these signals can go wrong, and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell may keep dividing to make more and more abnormal cells. These can form a lump, called a tumour.

Cells forming a tumour
Cells forming a tumour

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Not all tumours are cancer. Doctors can tell if a tumour is cancer by taking a small sample of cells from it. This is called a biopsy. The doctors examine the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

A tumour that is not cancer (a benign tumour) may grow, but it cannot spread to anywhere else in the body. It usually only causes problems if it grows and presses on nearby organs.

A tumour that is cancer (a malignant tumour) can grow into nearby tissue.

Sometimes cancer cells spread from where the cancer started (the primary site) to other parts of the body. They can travel around the body in the blood or through lymph fluid which is part of the lymphatic system. When these cancer cells reach another part of the body, they may grow and form another tumour. This is called a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Some types of cancer start from blood cells. Abnormal cells can build up in the blood, and sometimes the bone marrow. This is where blood cells are made. These types of cancer are sometimes called blood cancers.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system helps to protect us from infection and disease. It also drains lymph fluid from the tissues of the body before returning it to the blood. The lymphatic system is made up of fine tubes called lymphatic vessels that connect to groups of lymph nodes throughout the body.

Lymph nodes in the lower abdomen and pelvis
Lymph nodes in the lower abdomen and pelvis

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Lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) are small and bean shaped. They filter bacteria (germs) and disease from the lymph fluid. When you have an infection lymph nodes often swell as they fight the infection.

Sometimes, cancer can spread through the lymphatic system. If vulval cancer spreads in this way, it is most likely to affect the lymph nodes in the groin.

Back to Understanding vulval cancer

The vulva

The vulva is the area of skin between a woman’s legs.

Types of vulval cancer

Vulval cancer is very rare. There are over 200 different types of vulval cancer. The most common type of vulval cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Symptoms of vulval cancer

If you have any of the common symptoms of vulval cancer, see your doctor to get them checked out.

Why do cancers come back?

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