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What is vulval cancer?

Vulval cancer is when abnormal cells in the vulva start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way.

The vulva

The vulva is the area between a woman’s legs that includes the female external sex organs.

Diagram showing the anatomy of the vulva with Bartholinns glands

The vulva includes two pairs of lips. These are the outer pair of lips, called the labia majora and the inner pair of lips called the labia minora.

Between these lips are two openings:

  • the entrance to the vagina
  • the urethra - 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.

Just below the vagina, on either side are 2 glands called Bartholin’s glands. They make a fluid, which acts as a lubricant during sexual intercourse.

This video shows more detail about the female reproductive system. 

Where does vulval cancer start?

Cancer of the vulva is also called vulval cancer or vulvar cancer. It can start in any part of the female external sex organs. It most often affects the inner edges of the outer lips (labia majora) or the outer lips (labia minora).

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.

The medical name for these abnormal cells is vulval epithelial neoplasm (VIN), or your doctor may call these pre cancerous changes.

This does not mean you have cancer. It is the stage before a cancer has developed. Some of these cell changes will go away without treatment. But finding these abnormal cells early and having treatment (if necessary) can prevent vulval cancer.

Not all types of vulval cancers have a pre cancerous or VIN stage. It is important to see your GP if you have any symptoms. They can tell you about treatments available or refer you to a specialist.

Types of vulval cancer

There are different types of vulval cancer depending on the type of cells it starts in. The most common type of vulval cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

How common is it?

Vulval cancer is a rare cancer. Around 1,300 people are diagnosed in the UK each year. 

It's more common in older women. On average each year more than 40 out of 100 (more than 40%) of new cases are in women aged 75 and over.

Last reviewed: 
25 Jan 2019
  • Textbook of uncommon cancers (5th edition) 

    D Raghavan and others (2017) 

    John Wiley and sons

  • Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Hellman, S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2014 - 2016 UK average) 
    Accessed July 2019

  • Cancer of the Vulva

    FIGO cancer report 2018

    L Rogers and M Cuello

    International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 2018. Vol 143,  Issue S2, Pages 4-13

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