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Female patient with a stage of vulvar cancer

Vulvar cancer is a rare malignancy that develops on the outer part of the female genitalia (vulva), which includes the vaginal opening, outer lips (labia majora), inner lips (labia minora), Bartholin’s glands and clitoris. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma, which forms in the flat cells that line the surface of the vulva.

After vulvar cancer is diagnosed, a physician will stage the tumor to determine if it has spread and, if so, how far. Usually, vulvar cancer develops slowly over several years, but early detection is important because, like all types of cancer, vulvar cancer becomes more challenging to treat as it progresses. Usually, there are more treatment options for early-stage cancer.

How is vulvar cancer staged?

Vulvar cancer staging provides a uniform way for healthcare professionals to describe the location of the tumor, the extent of its spread and whether it is affecting any other organs or tissues. The stage of vulvar cancer is an important factor considered by physicians when planning treatment.

Vulvar cancer stages range from stage 0 through stage 4. In general, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread.

When staging vulvar cancer, most physicians in the United States use the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM staging system, which classifies tumors at the time of diagnosis based on:

  • The size of the tumor (T)
  • Whether cancerous cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes (N)
  • Whether cancerous cells have traveled (metastasized) to distant organs or tissues (M)

Based on the results of various diagnostic tests, such as biopsies and imaging scans, a physician will assign a value to each of these three categories. Once this process is complete, the physician will assess the information collectively, then assign the vulvar cancer stage.

What are the stages of vulvar cancer?

The vulvar cancer staging system consists of:

  • Stage 0 – Precancerous cells are detected on the surface of the vulvar skin only.
  • Stage 1 – A cancerous tumor that is smaller than 2 centimeters in diameter is found on the vulva but has not spread.
  • Stage 2 – A cancerous tumor that measures more than 2 centimeters in diameter is found on the vulva or perineum but has not spread to nearby tissues.
  • Stage 3 – Vulvar cancer has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes on one side of the body, with no distant metastasis.
  • Stage 4 – Vulvar cancer has spread to lymph nodes on both sides of the body or metastasized to distant organs or tissues.

Although each patient and each tumor is unique, vulvar cancers of the same stage tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Moffitt offers comprehensive vulvar cancer screening, diagnostic and treatment services in a single location. The multispecialty team in our gynecological clinic considers the stage of a vulvar tumor along with many other factors to determine the best treatment approach, which is reviewed by our tumor board and continually refined as appropriate. In addition to highly individualized treatment, our patients benefit from multiple expert opinions without having to obtain referrals or travel to different facilities. 

If you would like to discuss your vulvar cancer stage and treatment with a specialist at Moffitt, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online.