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Health Information Center

Vulvar Cancer

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Vulvar Cancer


Vulvar cancer is cancer that happens on the outer female genitals. The vulva includes the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening. There are different types of vulvar cancer. They are:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma—cancers of the skin cells, the most common type
  • Adenocarcinoma—from fluid producing glands, less common


Cancer happens when cells divide without control or order. These cells grow together to form a tumor. They can invade and damage nearby tissues. They can also spread to other parts of the body.

It is not clear what causes changes in the cells. It is likely a combination of genes and the environment.

Risk Factors

The risk of this problem increases with age. It is most common in women 70 to 80 years of age.

Other things that raise the risk are:

  • HPV infection
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia
  • Multiple sex partners
  • Long term irritation or skin problems, such as:
    • Lichen sclerosus
    • Lichen simplex chronicus
  • Smoking
  • A weak immune system from problems such as HIV


Problems may be:

  • Sores, scales, lumps, or ulcers on the vulva
  • Severe itching of the vulva
  • Pain or burning, especially when passing urine
  • Changes in the color or feel of the vulvar skin


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. Physical and pelvic exams will be done.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests to look for cancer markers
  • Biopsy to take a sample of tissue for testing
  • Pap test to look for cancer in nearby tissue

Pictures may also be taken. This can be done with:

The exam and test results are used for staging. Staging outlines how far and fast cancer has spread.


The goal is to get rid of the cancer. Treatment depends on the site, type, and stage of the cancer. More than one method may be used.

Options are:

  • Surgery to remove:
    • The cancer and surrounding tissue
    • All or part of the vulva
    • Lymph nodes
    • Other structures—if the cancer has spread
  • Radiation therapy—to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
  • Chemotherapy by pills, injections, or IV—to kill cancer cells


Vulvar cancer cannot always be prevented. The risk may be lowered by:

  • The HPV vaccine
  • Safe sex—limiting sex partners and using latex condoms
  • Not smoking




  • Tan A, Bieber AK, et al. Diagnosis and management of vulvar cancer: A review. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;81(6):1387-1396.
  • Vaginal and vulvar cancers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/vagvulv.
  • Vulvar cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/vulvar-cancer.html.
  • Vulvar cancer. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/vulvar-cancer.
  • Vulvar cancer treatment. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/vulvar/patient/vulvar-treatment-pdq.
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/vulvar-intraepithelial-neoplasia-vin.
  • Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma (VSCC). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/vulvar-squamous-cell-carcinoma-vscc.
  • What is vulvar cancer? Canadian Cancer Society website. Available at: https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/vulvar/what-is-vulvar-cancer.


  • Elizabeth Margaret Prusak, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.