What is vulvar cancer?

Vulvar cancer starts in the cells of the vulva. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

The vulva is the part of the female genital reproductive organs that can be seen from outside of the body.

Cells in the vulva sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to many non-cancerous (benign) conditions such as lichen sclerosus or genital warts. They can also lead to non-cancerous tumours such as Bartholin cyst and Skene’s cyst.

Changes to cells of the vulva can also cause precancerous conditions. This means that the abnormal cells are not yet cancer, but there is a chance that they may become cancer if they aren’t treated for many months. The most common precancerous condition of the vulva is vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN).

But in some cases, changes to cells can cause vulvar cancer. Most often, vulvar cancer starts in the skin of the vulva. The most common type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the vulva. Vulvar cancer can also start in melanocytes, which are cells that make pigments. Cancer that starts in melanocytes in the vulva is called vulvar melanoma.

Other rarer types of vulvar cancer can also develop. These include adenocarcinoma, Paget disease of the vulva and sarcoma.

The vulva

The vulva is the part of the female genital reproductive organs that can be seen from outside of the body. The vulva opens into the vagina. The vagina is the muscular canal that goes from the cervix to the outside of the body.

Diagram of the vulva
Diagram of the vulva

Structure

The vulva is made up of several female genital organs.

The labia majora are 2 outer skin folds that look like lips. They cover and protect the other external genital organs. During sexual stimulation, the labia majora may become swollen with blood.

The labia minora are 2 smaller skin folds just inside the labia majora. They cover the vaginal and urethral opening.

The clitoris is a small organ in front of the labia minora. It has many nerve endings. When a woman is sexually stimulated, the clitoris becomes swollen and erect with blood.

The urethral opening is the opening of the urethra. The urethra is the tube that connects to the bladder and allows urine to leave the body. The urethral opening is found just under the clitoris.

The vaginal opening is the opening to the vagina. The vagina is the muscular canal leading to the cervix.

The Bartholin glands are found just inside the vulva. They produce a thick fluid, which acts as lubricant during sexual intercourse.

The perineum is the space between the vulva and the anus.

The anus is the opening at the lower end of the rectum (the last section of the large intestine) through which waste (stool or feces) is passed from the body.

Function

The vulva protects the internal genital organs and gives sexual pleasure.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Vulvar Cancer. 2014: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/vulvar-cancer.html.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Vulvar Cancer. 2015: http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/vulvar-cancer/view-all.
  • Klopp AH, Eifel PJ, Berek JS, Konstantinopoulos PA . Cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 72:1013-1047.
  • Levine DA, Dizon DS, Yashar CM, Barakat RR, Berchuch A, Markman M, Randall ME. Handbook for Principles and Practice of Gynecologic Oncology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2015.

Cancerous tumours of the vulva

Malignant tumours of the vulva are cancerous growths that have the potential to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Precancerous conditions of the vulva

Precancerous conditions of the vulva have the potential to develop into vulvar cancer.

Non-cancerous tumours and conditions of the vulva

A benign cyst is a fluid-filled sac in the vulvar tissue. A benign tumour of the vulva is a non-cancerous growth that does not spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and is not usually life-threatening.