Vulvar Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2023

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 this entire guide.

About the vulva

The vulva is the external genitalia of the female reproductive system. 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. However, vulvar skin can also develop skin cancers like all other skin on the body. The most common type of vulvar cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. Other, less common vulvar cancers include adenocarcinoma, melanoma, sarcoma, and verrucous carcinoma.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that 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. VIN is further classified into 2 groups based on how the cells look under a microscope called “usual-type VIN” and “differentiated VIN.” Usual-type VIN usually appears in younger people and is associated with human papillomavirus (HPV). Differentiated VIN is less common, usually appears in older people, and is not associated with HPV. Differentiated VIN often arises in people who have a skin condition called lichen sclerosus, which is likely to be diagnosed by a gynecologist and to be a known condition prior to VIN, but not always. This kind of VIN can develop into a fast-moving, aggressive squamous cancer. See Risk Factors and Prevention to learn more about HPV, precancerous conditions of the vulva, and lichen sclerosus.

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

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

  • Melanoma. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that accounts for about 2% to 4% of vulvar cancers. Melanoma is usually found on skin in parts of the body commonly exposed to the sun, but it can occasionally develop where there is no sun exposure. When it develops in the vulva, it occurs most often on the clitoris or the labia minora. Having melanoma diagnosed on another part of the body is a risk factor for 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.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with vulvar cancer and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.