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What is vulvar cancer?

Vulvar cancer can start in any part of the external female sex organs (genitals). It most commonly develops in the labia majora, labia minora and the perineum. Less often, it involves the clitoris, mons pubis or Bartholin glands.

What are the types of vulvar cancer?

The types of vulvar cancer are named after the cells they start in:

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) – the most common type, accounting for about 9 out of 10 (90%) cases. It starts in the thin, flat (squamous) cells lining the vulva. The two main subtypes are keratinising vulvar carcinomas (not linked to HPV) and warty/basaloid (linked to HPV). Also includes verrucous carcinoma, a rare subtype, that looks like a large wart and grows slowly.

Vulvar (mucosal) melanoma – makes up about 2–4% of vulvar cancers. It starts in the cells that give the skin its colour (melanocytes), also found in the moist lining of the vulva. Mucosal melanomas are not related to overexposure to UV radiation.

Sarcoma – a rare type that starts in cells in muscle, fat and other tissue under the skin. It tends to grow faster than other types.

Adenocarcinoma – a rare type that develops from the mucus-producing (glandular) cells in the Bartholin glands or other vulvar glands. It includes extramammary Paget’s disease, which looks like eczema.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – although the most common form of skin cancer, BCC is a very rare type of vulvar cancer that starts in tall (basal) cells in the skin’s lower layer.

Vulvar cancer is not common – each year in Australia, about 340 women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer. Although it most commonly affects women who have gone through menopause, diagnoses of vulvar cancer in women under 60 have increased in recent years. This is likely to be due to rising rates of infection with HPV.

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Understanding Vulvar and Vaginal Cancers

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