Vulvar cancer is a rare condition in which cancer cells develop in the tissues of the vulva, the external genitalia of the female reproductive system.

The vulva consists of the:

  • opening of the vagina
  • inner lips of the vagina, or labia minora
  • outer lips of the vagina, or labia majora
  • clitoris

Vulvar cancer mostly affects the labia majora and forms gradually over several years. It comprises about 0.7% of all new cancers among females, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization estimates over 6,000 new cases of vulvar cancer will be diagnosed in 2023.

This article details the early symptoms of vulvar cancer, including pictures, causes, treatment, and prevention.

In most cases, vulvar cancer may not have any early signs or symptoms. The symptoms of vulvar cancer depend on the type of vulvar cancer.

The different types of vulvar cancers include:

Symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:

  • a lump or warty growth
  • itching
  • bleeding not associated with menstruation
  • pain and irritation
  • painful urination
  • pain during intercourse
  • changes in the skin color of the vulva

People can contact a doctor if they notice any abnormal changes around the vulva. Early diagnosis can help prevent serious outcomes.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Learn more about vulvar cancer here.

A person should contact a doctor if they notice any abnormal changes in the vulva that do not go away, including:

  • burning
  • itching
  • bleeding

Several factors can increase the risk of vulvar cancer. These include:

  • Age: More than 50% of vulvar cancers occur in females aged 70 years and older, and less than 20% occur in females below 50 years.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): High risk HPV, such as HPV 16 and 18, leads to more than half of all vulvar cancers.
  • Smoking: Smoking can lead to exposure to several cancer-causing chemicals. It increases the risk of vulvar cancer, especially among females with previous HPV infections.
  • HIV: HIV can damage the immune system, which can increase the risk of vulvar cancer.
  • Lichen sclerosus: This disorder causes vulvar skin to become itchy and very thin, which in turn increases the risk of vulvar cancer. About 4% of people with lichen sclerosus later develop vulvar cancer.
  • Radiation: People undergoing radiation therapy in the vulvar region have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.
  • Cervical cancer: Cervical cancer can increase the risk of developing vulvar cancer.
  • Melanoma and moles: People with melanoma and moles in different areas of the body have a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer.

Several treatment approaches are available for vulvar cancer.


Surgery is the standard treatment for vulvar cancer. It involves the removal of cancer cells without damaging the sexual function of the organs.

A few types of surgery for vulvar cancer involve:

  • laser surgery, where a laser beam removes cancerous cells
  • excision, where cancerous tissues are surgically removed
  • vulvectomy, where either a part of or the entire vulva is surgically removed
  • pelvic exenteration, which involves the removal of the vulva along with nearby organs and lymph nodes, depending on whether the cancer has spread

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high energy rays to treat cancer.

Radiation can take place before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to destroy any left-behind cancer cells.

Radiation therapy can also take place with or without chemotherapy as a main treatment for people who cannot undergo surgery.


Chemotherapy involves the administration of drugs intravenously or topically.

Chemotherapy is mostly used for vulvar cancer that has come back after surgery or has spread.


Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy. It involves using specific substances to restore or boost the body’s natural defense against cancer.

Survival rates indicate whether a person may survive vulvar cancer for about 5 years after diagnosis.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for vulvar cancer is:

  • 86% for localized cancer (cancer present only in the vulva)
  • 53% for regional cancer (cancer has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes)
  • 19% for distant cancer (cancer has spread to other parts of the body)

These rates are estimates. A doctor can provide an individualized outlook based on a person’s health and specific diagnosis. Moreover, these rates use data from 2008–2014, so they may not reflect any advances in treatment.

According to a 2016 review, the overall recurrence rate of vulvar squamous cell carcinoma is 12–37%.

A few steps that can help reduce the chances of developing vulvar cancer include:

  • using physical protection during sexual intercourse, such as condoms
  • getting vaccinated against HPV
  • getting regular pelvic checkups
  • avoiding smoking

A person can also regularly self-examine the vulva to be aware of any changes in the vulva that can result in the development of cancer.

Vulvar cancer is a rare condition in which cancer cells develop in the vulvar tissues. Most cases of vulvar cancer need time to develop and do not show any early signs and symptoms.

Several factors can increase the risk of vulvar cancer. HPV infection is the most prominent. Many treatment approaches are available for vulvar cancer, with surgery being the most common.