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Vulvar Cancer: Introduction

Vulvar Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer? 

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body doesn't need them any more.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).

What is vulvar cancer?

Nearly all vulvar cancers start in the squamous cells. These are called squamous cell carcinoma of the vulva. Squamous cells make up most of the skin and other surfaces and linings of the body.

Other rare types of vulvar cancer include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and sarcoma.

Understanding the vulva

The vulva is the outer part of the female reproductive system. It’s also called the external genitalia. The vulva is the fatty tissue and skin that's around the clitoris and the openings of the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body) and the vagina. It includes:

  • The mons pubis. This is the rounded area in front of the pubic bones that becomes covered with hair at puberty. It includes the skin folds under the pubic hair that protect the opening of the urethra and the vagina.

  • Two folds of skin on each side. The outer folds are called the labia majora. The inner folds are called the labia minora.

  • The prepuce or the hood of the clitoris. This is made by the inner fold of the vulva.

  • The clitoris is below the prepuce. It’s a sensitive piece of tissue that swells with blood when stimulated.

  • The fourchette is at the bottom of the inner folds of the vulva. This is where the labia minora meet.

  • The perineum is area between the fourchette and the anus.

Most vulvar cancers start in the labia majora.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about vulvar cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer.