Vulvar Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find 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. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for the complete guide.

About the vulva

The vulva is a woman’s external genitalia. It 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 2 folds on each side of the vaginal opening, called the labia majora and labia minora. Cancer of the vulva occurs most often in or on the labia. Less often, it can occur on the clitoris or in glands on the sides of the vaginal opening, called the Bartholin’s glands, which produce a mucus­­-like lubricating fluid.

About vulvar cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Vulvar cancer is named for the type of tissue where the cancer started.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancerthat accounts for about 90% of vulvar cancers, most of which are found on the labia.

    Squamous cancer can develop through a “precancerous” condition, which is when changes in cells may, but do not always, become cancer. This is called vulva intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). VIN is a premalignant growth of cells on the vulva and is treated differently from invasive cancer. “Premalignant” means that it is not yet cancer.

Other, much less common vulvar cancers include:

  • Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma starts in the Bartholin’s glands or vulvar sweat glands. It accounts for a small percentage of vulvar cancer. 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 cancer. 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. Vulvar melanoma is often treated using similar approaches for the treatment of melanoma in other parts of the body.

  • Sarcoma. Sarcoma is a tumor of the connective tissue beneath the skin.

  • Verrucous carcinoma. This is a slow-growing subtype of squamous cell carcinoma that looks like a wart.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of women who are diagnosed with this disease and their survival rates. You may use the menu to choose a different section to continue reading in this guide.