Cancer of the Vulva

Types of cancer of the vulva

Most (90%) cancers of the vulva develop from the squamous cells in the vulva. Squamous cell cancers usually grow very slowly over a few years. Other rare types of vulval cancer include vulval melanoma, adenocarcinoma, verrucous carcinoma and sarcomas.

How common is cancer of the vulva?

Each year, about 300 Australian women are diagnosed with cancer of the vulva. It most commonly affects post-menopausal women. The incidence is highest for women older than 80. However, vulvar cancer can sometimes occur in younger women.

Causes of cancer of the vulva

Precancerous conditions

Although the cause of cancer of the vulva remains unknown, it has been linked to certain precancerous conditions.

  • A condition called VIN (vulval intraepitheli al neoplasia) occurs in the skin of the vulva and can develop into vulval cancer if left untreated.
  • Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).
  • In younger women, a precancerous lesion (area of tissue) is more likely to be associated with HPV, and this increases the risk of vulval cancer. This risk is increased in women who smoke. Older women who get vulval cancer usually don’t have a link with HPV.

Skin conditions

Women who have certain non-cancerous skin conditions for a long time - vulval lichen sclerosus and vulval lichen planus - have an increased risk of developing vulval cancer.

Cancer of the vulva symptoms and diagnosis

There are often no obvious symptoms of vulval cancer. However, the most common symptoms of cancer of the vulva are:

  • Itching, burning, soreness or pain of the vulva
  • A lump, swelling or wart-like growth on the vulva
  • Thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
  • Blood, pus or other discharge coming from a lesion or sore spot, which may have an offensive or unusual odour or colour (not related to your menstrual period)
  • A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
  • Cancer of the vulva usually takes many years to develop but, as with other cancers, it is easier to treat and cure at an early stage.

Any of the above symptoms can be a sign of many conditions other than cancer, but always get your doctor to check them.

The usual tests to diagnose cancer of the vulva are:

  • Vulvoscopy
  • Biopsy

Cancer of the vulva treatment

Surgery is the main treatment for cancer of the vulva. It may be used either alone or in combination with radiotherapy and chemotherapy.


For more information, see Cancer Council Australia's Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers booklet.