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Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer forms in the vulva, the area around the external genital organs on a woman. The vulva includes the following parts:

  • Labia —The lips around the opening of the vagina
  • Clitoris — A small mass of tissue at the opening of the vagina
  • Bartholin's Glands — The small mucus-producing glands on either side of the vaginal opening

In most cases, cancer of the vulva affects the labia. Less often, cancer occurs on the clitoris or in Bartholin's glands. Over 90 percent of vulvar cancers are considered a type of skin cancer because they begin in the squamous cells, the main cell type of the skin. They usually develop slowly over many years and in their earliest form are not cancerous.

When diagnosed and treated early, vulvar cancer can be cured in more than 90 percent of cases.

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Risk Factors

Vulvar cancer is relatively rare, and typically affects Caucasian women over the age of 60, although the condition can occur in younger women and those of all ethnicities. Other risk factors for the condition include:

  • Smoking
  • Taking steroids or other drugs that weaken the immune system
  • Genital warts caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV)
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In most cases, vulvar cancer causes early symptoms. Therefore, if you experience any of the symptoms of the condition, you should visit your doctor immediately. Common symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:

  • Vulvar itching that lasts more than one month
  • A cut or sore on the vulva that won't heal
  • A lump or mass on the vulva
  • Unexplained vulvar pain
  • Bleeding from the vulva that is different from your usual monthly bleeding
  • Burning in the area that lasts even after your doctor has treated the burning
  • Any change in size, color or texture of a birthmark or mole in the vulvar area

It is important to note that if detected and treated early, vulvar cancer has a high cure rate. Therefore, it is essential that you visit your doctor for a definite diagnosis.

In making a diagnosis, your doctor will first review your medical history, ask about any symptoms you are experiencing and conduct a thorough physical exam. The following tests also may be performed:

  • Pelvic Exam — This test involves feeling the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum to find any abnormality in their shape or size.
  • Ultrasound — This test uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of organs and systems within the body. These waves, which cannot be heard by humans, create a pattern of echoes called a sonogram. Healthy tissues, fluid-filled cysts and tumors look different on this picture.
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When diagnosed and treated early, vulvar cancer can be cured in over 90 percent of cases. Treatment for vulvar cancer typically involves surgery, radiation therapy and in some cases, chemotherapy. Our team of cancer specialists, radiation specialists and plastic surgeons work together to design the most effective treatment plan for your condition.

Surgery

In many cases, vulvar cancer is treated with surgery. The type of surgery depends on the size, depth and spread of the cancer.

One commonly used form of surgery is called wide local excision, in which the cancer and some of the normal tissue around the cancer is removed. Another surgical approach is called a radical excision, which removes the cancer and a larger portion of surrounding tissue and, in some cases, the lymph nodes. After these procedures, patients may need to have skin from another part of the body added, or grafted, and plastic surgery to make an artificial vulva or vagina.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.