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.
The female reproductive system includes a number of parts. The ovaries hold the eggs which are released each month during child bearing age. They also produce sex hormones which control periods. The fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the womb (also called the uterus).
When an egg is released it travels down the fallopian tube towards the womb. At this time, sperm from the male can pass into the fallopian tube where it may meet the egg and fertilise it. Fertilised eggs pass down the fallopian tube to the womb, which holds and protects the baby during pregnancy. The lining of the womb is called the endometrium. It thickens during the menstrual cycle ready for pregnancy. If you don’t become pregnant you have a period which is when the lining sheds.
The cervix is the lower part of the womb. It is the opening into the vagina. During a period or menstruation blood passes from the womb through the cervix and then to the vagina. The vagina also opens and expands during sexual intercourse and stretches during childbirth to allow a baby to come out.
On the outside of the body is the vulva. It is made up of two pairs of lips. Between these is the opening of the vagina. Above the vagina is the urethra: a short tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside of the body and above the urethra is the clitoris: a very sensitive area that gives sexual pleasure.
For more information about cancers that can start in the female reproductive system, go to cruk.org/cancer-types
What is the vulva?
The vulva is the area between the legs that includes the female external sex organs.
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.