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.
Most 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.