Vulvar Cancer: Symptoms & Treatment

What are the symptoms of Vulvar Cancer?

The vulva is the external part of a woman’s sex organs. Vulvar cancer symptoms can include:

  • A lasting itch
  • Pain or soreness
  • Thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
  • Changes in the skin of the vulva, including colour changes or growths that look like a wart or ulcer 
  • An open sore or growth visible on the skin
  • Burning pain when you pass urine
  • Vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
  • A lump or swelling in the vulva
  • A lump in the groin

All these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, such as infection but if you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor.

What is Vulvar Cancer? 

Vulvar cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the tissues of the vulva grow in an uncontrolled way. It can also be called cancer of the vulva, vulval cancer or vulva cancer.

The vulvar is the external part of a woman’s sex organs and consists of soft fatty tissue covered with pubic hair called the Mons Pubis, the labia – consisting of the two outer larger lips (the labia majora), two inner smaller and thinner lips (the labia minora), the clitoris and the perineum (the skin between the vulva and anus).

Cancer of the vulvar may involve any of these external female sex organs. The most common areas for it to develop are the inner edges of the labia majora and the labia minora.

Less often, vulvar cancer may also involve the clitoris or the Bartholin’s glands (small glands, one on each side of the vagina). It can also affect the perineum.

What are the causes of Vulvar Cancer? 

Usually, it is not possible to determine what exactly causes vulvar cancer in a particular woman but known risk factors include:

  • Being older, vulvar cancer is most common in women aged over 60
  • Having had the human papillomavirus (HPV) or genital warts
  • Smoking
  • If you have the skin conditions vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia or lichen sclerosus or if your vulva is often itchy
  • Previously having vaginal or cervical cancer
  • Radiotherapy to your pelvis in the past.

You can read more about vulvar cancer here.

So can you treat Vulvar Cancer? 

Yes, the main treatments used for vulvar cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and sometimes chemotherapy. A combination of treatments may be suggested depending on the type of cancer, where it is and your general health.

What treatment options are available for Vulvar Cancer? 


Surgery options for vulvar cancer include:

  • Wide local excision: In this procedure, the area containing the cancer is removed along with a border of healthy tissue around it. The important thing is to also remove a border of tissue that is free of cancer cells as this lowers the risk of the cancer coming back.

Sometimes surgeons use a laser to destroy abnormal cells. A laser is a thin, high powered beam of light that your surgeon can use instead of a surgical blade (scalpel).

  • Partial vulvectomy: In this procedure you may only need to have just the inner or outer labia removed, or the labia may be removed from one side only. The extent of surgery will depend on where the cancer is, and on how accessible a border of healthy tissue is for the surgeon to work with.
  • Vulvectomy (or radical vulvectomy): The whole vulva is removed, including the inner and outer lips of the vagina. The clitoris may be removed as well.
  • Lymph node dissection: The lymph nodes on one or both sides of the groin may be removed. The lymph nodes in the groin are usually the first place where cancer cells spread from the vulva. Removing them makes it less likely that the cancer will return. Whether the nodes are taken from one or both sides will depend on the size and position of the cancer.


The stage of vulvar cancer and grade of the cancer cells can be determined through testing. Depending on the relative size of the cancer, how far it has spread and how quickly it may develop, your health practitioner will recommend the most appropriate treatment. This may involve surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination.


Radiotherapy uses radiation to kill or damage cancer cells. The use of this treatment for vulvar cancer depends on the stage and size of the cancer, as well as whether it has spread to the lymph nodes. This form of treatment may be given instead of, or in combination with, surgery. 


Chemotherapy destroys or slows the growth of cancer cells through the use of specialised drugs. It is commonly given by injection but can also be administered in a tablet or cream form. Chemotherapy may be given to control cancer which has spread, in conjunction with radiotherapy or as palliative treatment to help with symptom relief. 

Can you prevent Vulvar Cancer?

Not smoking and immunisation against HPV may help to reduce the likelihood of developing vulvar cancer. 

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ACRF is committed to backing the brilliant ideas needed to find pathbreaking ways to prevent, detect and treat all types of cancer, including vulvar cancer, so that we can create better outcomes for all Australians. 

By donating to ACRF, you are helping to provide scientists with the tools, technology and infrastructure they need to accelerate cancer research.