Cancer of the vulva is a rare type of cancer that affects women. Around 1,200 new cases are diagnosed each year in the UK.
The vulva is a woman's external genitals. It includes the lips surrounding the vagina (labia minora and labia majora), the clitoris (sexual organ that helps women reach sexual climax), and the Bartholin's glands (two small glands each side of the vagina).
Most of those affected by vulval cancer are older women over the age of 65. The condition is rare in women under 50 who have not yet gone through the menopause.
Symptoms of vulval cancer
Symptoms of vulval cancer can include:
- a persistent itch in the vulva
- pain, soreness or tenderness in the vulva
- raised and thickened patches of skin that can be red, white or dark
- a lump or wart-like growth on the vulva
- bleeding from the vulva or blood-stained vaginal discharge between periods
- an open sore in the vulva
- a burning pain when passing urine
- a mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
See your GP if you notice any changes in the usual appearance of your vulva. While it's highly unlikely to be the result of cancer, these changes should be investigated.
Read more about diagnosing vulval cancer.
What causes vulval cancer?
The exact cause of vulval cancer is unclear, but your risk of developing the condition is increased by the following factors:
- increasing age
- vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) – where the cells in the vulva are abnormal and at risk of turning cancerous
- persistent infection with certain versions of the human papilloma virus (HPV)
- skin conditions affecting the vulva, such as lichen sclerosus
You may be able to reduce your risk of vulval cancer by stopping smoking and taking steps to reduce the chances of picking up an HPV infection.
Read more about the causes of vulval cancer.
How vulval cancer is treated
The main treatment for vulval cancer is surgery to remove the cancerous tissue from the vulva and any lymph nodes containing cancerous cells.
Some people may also have radiotherapy (where radiation is used to destroy cancer cells) or chemotherapy (where medication is used to kill cancer cells), or both.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be used without surgery if you're not well enough to have an operation, or if the cancer has spread and it isn't possible to remove it all.
Read more about treating vulval cancer.
The outlook for vulval cancer depends on things such as how far the cancer has spread, your age, and your general health. Generally, the earlier the cancer is detected and the younger you are, the better the chances of treatment being successful.
Overall, around 6 in every 10 women diagnosed with vulval cancer will survive at least five years. However, even after successful treatment, the cancer comes back in up to one in every three cases. You'll need regular follow-up appointments so your doctor can check if this is happening.
Can vulval cancer be prevented?
It's not thought to be possible to prevent vulval cancer completely, but you may be able to reduce your risk by:
- practising safer sex – using a condom during sex can offer some protection against HPV
- attending cervical screening appointments – cervical screening can detect HPV and pre-cancerous conditions such as VIN
- stopping smoking
The HPV vaccination may also reduce your chances of developing vulval cancer. This is now offered to all girls who are 12 to 13 years old as part of their routine childhood immunisation programme.