I'm looking for

What is Vulvar Cancer?

Vulvar cancer is a cancer of the skin surrounding the opening of the vagina, including the clitoris and the labia. Vulvar cancer is uncommon, with just under 5,000 women in the United States being diagnosed each year. This is less than 1 percent of all cancers in women in the United States. The risk of vulvar cancer is increasing, however, since it is often associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the same virus that increases the risk of cancer of the cervix. Vulvar cancer is treatable, but, as with all cancers, treatment is most effective if the cancer is detected early, before it has had a chance to spread.

When vulvar cancer first forms, it develops very slowly, over a period of several years. The development of vulvar cancer actually begins with the formation of precancer. Precancerous cells are cells that are abnormal but have not invaded into the surrounding areas. These precancerous areas are called vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN), or dysplasia. Although precancerous cells do not themselves pose a danger to a woman’s health, it is still important to treat precancerous conditions in order to prevent these types of cells from developing into cancer.

Once actual cancer cells develop, doctors focus on determining where the cancer is located and how far the cancer has spread. Cancer cells can locally invade nearby tissue. Cancer cells can also, in some cases, travel through the lymph system or through the blood to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis. If this happens, cancer may grow in another part of the body. The earlier cancer is detected and treated, the less likely it is that it will spread to another part of the body.

Role of the Gynecologic Oncologist

Gynecologic oncologists are trained in the comprehensive management of gynecologic cancer. As such, they coordinate care for women with vulvar cancer from diagnosis, to surgery, to chemotherapy, through survivorship and palliative care at the end of life. They serve as captain of the entire cancer care team of medical oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and genetic counselors, among others. Seek a specialist near you.

NEXT: Risk Factors

Common types of vulvar cancer

  • Vulvar squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that begins in the cells that line the surface of the vulva. About 90 percent of vulvar cancers fall into this category.
  • Vulvar melanoma, a cancer that begins in the skin cells that produce pigment. About five percent of vulvar cancers fall into this category. Melanomas, like melanomas in other parts of the body (skin cancer), sometimes develop rapidly and aggressively, and have a high risk for spreading to other parts of the body.
  • This type of vulvar cancer is more likely to affect younger women than other forms of vulvar cancer.

Rare types of vulvar cancer

  • Adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that develops in the tissue of glands.
  • Sarcoma, a type of cancer that develops in connective tissue.
  • Verrucous carcinoma, a type of cancer that looks like a wart but is actually a subtype of squamous cell carcinoma.


Learn general information, including risk factors and symptoms, and what to do if your doctor suspects you or your loved one has been diagnosed with vulvar cancer. SGO also has a useful toolkit for vulvar cancer survivors.

This document, developed as an aide to patients, summarizes current scientific data and expert opinions pertaining to vulvar cancer. The presented information does not prescribe an exclusive course of treatment and is not exclusionary of other acceptable methods of management including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Treatment modifications typically take into account individual risks and needs as well as resources at particular institutions or regions throughout the world.


Going to Your Gynecologic Oncologist

If you or your doctor is concerned that you may have ovarian cancer, it is critical that you ask to consult with a gynecologic oncologist.


Share helpful resources with your patients

The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC), the official foundation of SGO, has produced great resources for your patients and their families in collaboration with SGO members. Visit the FWC website to download, print or order patient-focused educational materials.