Investigating the rise in vulvar cancer in young women

Professor Karen Canfell

Research Team

Cancer Council NSWFunding duration: 2016 - 2017

A study by Cancer Council NSW has found that rates of vulvar cancer have been increasing significantly from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s.


About 280 Australian women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer each year. Up to 40% of all vulvar cancer cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection.

Vulvar cancer is more common in women aged 60 and over, but the incidence is increasing in younger women, with over 30% of cases being diagnosed in women under 60. The findings suggest that HPV has become more prevalent in women born around or after 1950 – a trend that is associated with changing sexual behaviours in men and women, and therefore increasing levels of exposure to HPV.

The research

The researchers looked at vulvar cancer incidence data across 13 high-income countries, and found that the overall increase was driven by a substantial rise of cases in women under 60 years of age.
In Australia, there was a 54% increase of vulvar cancer cases in women under 60, and a 20% increase in women of all ages. Across all 13 countries there was a 38% increase in women under
60 years and a 14% increase in the overall incidence of vulvar cancer.

The study found that a total of 1,755 women under the age of 60 were diagnosed with vulvar cancer from 1982-2009, representing a 2.5% average percentage increase in rates in this age group every year.

The research concluded that the number of cases of vulvar cancer is expected to further increase in the future in several countries due to population growth and ageing. However, HPV vaccination is likely to counteract the increase to some extent, particularly in younger women.

The impact

With cases of vulvar cancer on the rise it is very important that women are aware of the signs and symptoms. Particularly as with early diagnosis and appropriate treatment women have an excellent chance of survival.

This research also reinforces the importance of HPV prevention. Children that receive the HPV vaccination when they are 12-13 years old are protected against up to 40% of vulvar cancers. They are also protected against a range of other HPV-related cancers – at least 70% of cervical cancers and up to 60% of oropharyngeal cancers.

Research Team

Dr Yoon Jung Kang
Dr Megan Smith
Ellen Barlow
Kate Coffey
Professor Neville Hacker
Professor Karen Canfell (pictured)

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