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What is vulval cancer?

The vulva is external part of the female genitals. Cancer in this area can cause a lump that may be sore or bleed. There are 1,400 new cases in the UK every year.

What is vulval cancer?

The vulva is the external part of the female genitals, around the opening of the vagina. It includes:

  • your labia or ‘lips’ surrounding the vagina
  • the clitoris, the sexual organ that helps women reach sexual climax
  • the Bartholin's glands. Two small glands each side of the vagina that make fluid which acts as a lubricant during sexual intercourse.

Vulval cancer is cancer that starts in any of these areas. It most commonly starts on the labia.

Vulval cancer grows slowly and sometimes starts as a growth of abnormal cells, called vulval epithelial neoplasia – or VIN. These cells are known as a precancer and may develop into vulval cancer.

Who gets vulval cancer?

Vulval cancer is rare. There are around 1,400 new vulval cancer cases in the UK every year.

The risk of vulval cancer increases with age and it’s most common in women over the age of 90. But young women can get pre-cancerous changes and cancer. If you notice any persistent soreness or inflammation, whatever your age, you should speak to your GP.

What are the risk factors and causes of vulval cancer?

70% of vulval cancers are caused by certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is the name given to a group of viruses with more than 100-different types. Not all of them are cancer causing, the ones that can cause cancer are known as high-risk HPV.

HPV is common and most people will get the HPV virus at some point in their life. It is spread through close skin-to-skin contact during any type of sexual activity with a partner.

Most of us won’t realise we have HPV. It can stay at very low or undetectable levels for many years without causing problems. In most cases, the body’s immune system will eliminate the virus within two years. This means an HPV infection may have come from a partner a long time ago.

There are a few other factors that can increase your risk of developing vulval cancer, these include:

  • a long-term skin condition called Lichen Sclerosis
  • a precancerous condition called VIN
  • previous cervical cancer or pre-cancerous cells in the cervix
  • a weakened immune system

What are the symptoms of vulval cancer?

Symptoms include a lump on the vulva. This may be swollen, itchy, painful and bleed.

You may have changes to the skin on the vulva, such as thick, raised, lighter or darker patches, or a mole that changes colour. Or you might experience burning when you wee, but this could be caused by many different things.

Go and see your GP if you have any of the symptoms mentioned – treatments are much more successful when cancers are diagnosed early.

How is vulval cancer diagnosed?

Your GP will examine you and check your vulva.

They should make you feel as comfortable as possible. You could also ask to see a female doctor if that helps.

If they think it might be cancer, you will be referred to the hospital for a biopsy. You should be seen at the hospital within two weeks.

A biopsy means that a small piece of skin from your vulva will be removed and analysed. You will have a local anaesthetic to numb the area, so you can’t feel anything.

If the examination or biopsy show cancer you may be sent for further tests to help determine if the cancer has spread.

How is vulval cancer treated?

Treatment for vulval cancer normally involves surgery. Some people may need to have radiotherapy and chemotherapy as well. But this depends on the size of the cancer, if it has spread and your general health.

It’s a good idea to discuss what your options are with your doctor and the benefits and risks of each. This will help you reach a decision that is best for you.

Treatment for vulval cancer can causes side effects such changes to the way your vulva looks, as well as sexual side effects and bladder and bowel problems. Your health professionals will give you treatment and support for these.

You can read more about vulval cancer treatment options on Macmillan’s vulval cancer pages.

Can vulval cancer be cured?

It may be possible for doctors to get rid of the cancer completely if it is at an early stage. But this might not be possible if it has spread to other parts of the body.

Getting support

There is more information on vulval cancer on the NHS website.

If you are worried about vulval cancer or have been diagnosed with it, there are places to get support:

You can also watch our gynaecological cancers webinar. Dr Sarah Kitson, an expert in women’s cancers, discusses the most common symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers: cervical; ovarian; vulval; vaginal; and womb cancer She also explains who may be most at risk and the impact a diagnosis can have.

Read about our research into gynaecological cancers

As a women’s health charity, part of what we do is fund research to save and change the lives of women, girls and babies.

We are currently co-funding a research study with the British Gynaecological Cancer Society to investigate if an innovative new technology can help detect and treat vulval and cervical cancers faster and more accurately.