Vulvar cancer is rare. According to the American Cancer Society, about 4,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with it each year. This accounts for fewer than 1% of cancers in women overall and about 4% of cancers of the female reproductive organs. Vulvar cancer usually grows slowly and may begin as precancerous changes that can be treated before they become cancer.
The vulva, which is part of a woman’s genitals, is at the opening of the vagina (birth canal). It includes the following main parts:
Opening of the vagina
Bartholin glands, which help lubricate the vagina during sex. One is on each side of the opening of the vagina.
Two skin folds around the opening of the vagina:
- Outer lips (labia majora), which are larger and have hair
- Inner lips (labia minora), which are small and do not have hair
Clitoris, which helps a woman feel sexual stimulation
Vulvar Cancer Types
Vulvar cancer types are named after the cells in which they begin. The main types of vulvar cancer are:
Squamous cell, which is a wart-like growth. Verrucous vulvar cancer is a subtype. This cancer often can be treated successfully. It is the main type of vulvar cancer.
Adenocarcinoma usually starts in the Bartholin glands or sweat glands in the vulva. These make up about 8% of vulvar cancers. Paget disease of the vulva is a type of adenocarcinoma in which the cancer cells are in the top layer of skin.
Melanoma is a skin cancer that starts in cells that make pigment.
Sarcomas may be found in children as well as adults. These rare types of vulvar cancer start in the muscles or bones.
Vulvar Cancer Causes & Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting vulvar cancer is a risk factor. These include:
- Age: More than half of women who develop vulvar cancer are over 70 years old.
- HPV (human papilloma virus)
- Smoking tobacco
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN), a precancerous condition usually caused by HPV
- Cervical cancer
- Melanoma or atypical moles on other parts of the body
- Family history of melanoma
Not everyone with risk factors gets vulvar cancer. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your health care provider.
In rare cases, vulvar cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.