Vulvar Cancer: Overview

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2012

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Vulvar Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the vulva

The vulva is a woman’s external genitalia and is made up of the skin and fatty tissue that surround the clitoris and the openings of the vagina and urethra. The fatty tissue makes up two folds, called the labia majora and labia minora. Cancer of the vulva occurs most often in or on the labia. Less frequently, it can occur on the clitoris or in glands on the sides of the vaginal opening, called Bartholin’s glands, which produce a mucus­­-like lubricating fluid.

About vulvar cancer

Cancer begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). Vulvar cancer is classified into three main types, named for the type of tissue where the cancer started.

Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that accounts for about 90% of vulvar cancers. It is usually found on the labia.

Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma starts in the Bartholin’s glands or vulvar sweat glands, and it accounts for a small percentage of vulvar cancers. It is usually found on the sides of the vaginal opening.

Melanoma. Melanoma is another type of skin cancer that accounts for about 2% to 4% of vulvar cancers. It occurs most often on the clitoris or the labia minora. Women with melanoma on other parts of their body have an increased risk of developing vulvar melanoma.

Other, less common vulvar cancers include Paget’s disease of the vulva, in which adenocarcinoma cells are found in the vulvar skin; sarcoma, a tumor of the connective tissue beneath the skin; and verrucous carcinoma, a slow-growing subtype of squamous cell carcinoma that looks like a wart.

Find out more about basic cancer terms used in this section.

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