Learn what the vulva is, where vulval cancer might start, and how common it is.
The term vulva means the external sex organs of a woman. The vulva is made up of two pairs of lips. The outer pair of lips is called the labia majora and the inner pair of lips is called the labia minora.
Between these lips are two openings. One opening is the entrance to the vagina. The other opening is the urethra, which is the short tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.
At the front of the vulva is the small organ called the clitoris, which helps a woman reach a sexual climax.
The rounded area of fatty tissue in front of the pubic bone is called the mons pubis.
The opening to the back passage, the anus, is also close to the vulva, but is separate from it. The area of skin between the vagina and the anus is called the perineum.
Where vulval cancer starts
Cancer of the vulva is also called vulval cancer or vulvar cancer. It can start in any part of the female external sex organs. The most common sites are the inner edges of the outer lips (labia majora) and the inner lips (labia minora).
It is also sometimes diagnosed in the perineum. The perineum is the skin between the vulva and the anus. Less often, vulval cancer may involve the clitoris or two small glands each side of the vagina, called the Bartholin's glands.
Most vulval cancers do not form quickly. Usually, there is a gradual change in the cells. First, normal cells become abnormal. Then these abnormal cells may go on to develop into cancer.
If you have some of these abnormal cells present, you may be told you have precancerous changes. Your doctor may say you have VIN or vulval intraepithelial neoplasia.
This means abnormal vulval cells. It does not mean cancer. It is the stage before a cancer has developed. Some of these cell changes will go away without treatment. Finding these abnormal cells early and having treatment (if necessary) can prevent vulval cancer.
How common it is
Vulval cancer is a rare cancer. Around 1,300 cases are diagnosed in the UK each year. Vulval cancer accounts for less than 1 in every 100 cancers diagnosed in women. It is more common in older women and many cases are diagnosed in women aged 65 or over. But around 15 out of every 100 cases (15%) are in women under the age of 50.