What is vulval cancer?

Vulval cancer is when abnormal cells in the vulva start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. The cancer cells can grow into the surrounding tissues or organs and may spread to other parts of the body. 

Vulval cancer is also called vulvar cancer. The vulva is part of the female reproductive system. 

The video below talks about the different parts of the female reproductive system. It lasts for 1 and a half minutes. 

What is the vulva?

The vulva is the area between the legs that includes the female external sex organs.

Diagram showing the anatomy of the vulva with Bartholinns glands

The vulva includes 2 pairs of lips. These are the outer lips, called the labia majora and the inner lips called the labia minora.

Between these lips are 2 openings:

  • the entrance to the vagina
  • the bladder opening - this is a short tube called urethra 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. The clitoris helps a woman reach a sexual climax.

The rounded area of fatty tissue in front of the pubic bone is called the mons pubis.

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.

The opening to the back passage is the anus. 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 does vulval cancer start?

Vulval cancer can start in any part of the female external sex organs. It most often starts in the outer lips (labia majora) or the inner 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 or VIN. Your doctor may call these pre cancerous changes.

Vulval epithelial neoplasm (VIN)

VIN is when abnormal cells develop on the surface of the vulva. It does not mean you have cancer. Some of these abnormal cells will go away without treatment. But other types of VIN need treatment. Finding these abnormal cells early and having treatment if needed 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 vulval cancer?

Vulval cancer is a rare cancer. Around 1,400 people are diagnosed in the UK each year. 

Your risk of developing vulval cancer increases as you get older. On average each year more than 40 out of 100 (more than 40%) new cases are in women aged 75 and over.

There are other factors that can also increase your risk of developing vulval cancer. 

  • British Gynaecological Cancer Society (BGCS) vulval cancer guidelines: recommendations for practice
    J Morrison and others
    British Gynaecological Cancer Society, 2020

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2016 - 2018 UK average) 
    Last checked October 2022

  • Cancer of the vulva: 2021 update (FIGO cancer report 2021)

    A Olawaiye and M Cuello

    International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 2021. Vol 155, Issue S1, Pages 7-18

  • Textbook of uncommon cancers (5th edition) 

    D Raghavan and others (2017) 

    John Wiley and sons

Last reviewed: 
02 Nov 2022
Next review due: 
02 Nov 2025

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