Cancer of the vulva (vulval cancer)

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer of the vulva, we can provide the information you need, from understanding the cancer itself, to choosing the right treatment, to finding support.

Cancer of the vulva is also known as vulval cancer or vulvar cancer.

What you should know about vulval cancer

  • The word vulva refers to the external sex organs in women. Cancer of the vulva is also called vulval cancer.
  • Cancer of the vulva occurs when normal cells change and grow in an abnormal way and form a malignant tumour.
  • The parts of the vulva usually affected are the outer lips (labia majora) and the inner lips (labia minora).
  • The cause of vulval cancer is unknown. But your risk of developing it increases if you have vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN), are over the age of 55, smoke, or have a benign skin condition like vulval lichen sclerosus or vulval lichen planus.
  • The main symptoms are itching, burning and soreness of the vulva, a swelling or lump on the skin of the vulva, and bleeding and pain in the vulva.
  • Vulval cancer is diagnosed by a medical exam using a colposcope and a biopsy.
  • The main treatment for vulval cancer is surgery. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also be used.

What is the vulva?

The vulva is the area of skin between a woman’s legs. It refers to the external sex organs in women. It is made up of:

  • Two outer lips (labia majora)
  • Two inner lips (labia minora)
  • The clitoris at the front of the vulva. It helps women reach sexual climax
  • The urethra – the tube that drains urine
  • The vagina
  • The perineum – the area of skin between the vulva and the anus (back passage)
  • All these female sex organs can be seen outside the body. In the groin area at the top of each leg are lymph glands. These are part of the lymphatic system that fights infection.

What is vulval cancer?

When cancer develops in the vulva, the cells change and grow in an abnormal way. A group of these cancer cells can form a malignant tumour. Cancer of the vulva is also known as vulval or vulvar cancer. It can occur in any of the female external sex organs. The most common areas are the outer lips (labia majora) and inner lips (labia minora). It occurs less commonly in the clitoris. Vulval cancer does not form quickly. Usually there is a gradual change in the cells over time. There are also different types of vulval cancer, some of which are very rare.

These include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Vulval melanoma
  • Verrucous carcinoma
  • Sarcoma

How common is vulval cancer?

Cancer of the vulva is very rare. In Ireland, about 39 women are diagnosed with it each year. It usually affects women aged 55 to 75.

Cancer publications

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Useful resources

Note: Links to external websites are listed below. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the contents of external websites.

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