Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer)

Cancer of the penis, or penile cancer, rarely affects men under 40, and only 1 in 100,000 men overall. It is a potentially fatal condition.

With penile cancer, tumours usually appear on the end of the penis or on the foreskin. In North America, where circumcision is routinely performed, penile cancer is rare. Bacterial production of smegma (a cheese-like substance that can form under the foreskin of the penis) may be a risk factor. Unprotected sexual relations with multiple partners and cigarette smoking are also risk factors.

As with all cancers, penile tumours occur when cells abnormally divide and grow forming a lump. Tumours can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body, although they can press on surrounding organs, affecting their function. Malignant tumours are able to spread beyond their original site. Sometimes cells break off and travel in the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other organs in the body, growing new tumours there.

Learn more about Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer)

Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) symptoms

Doctors recommend regular self-examination to catch any changes at an early stage. If you notice any of the following, make an appointment to see your GP:

  • A pimple-like, painless sore on the end of the penis or on the foreskin.
  • Any other painless sore or warts on the penis.
  • A persistent sore spot, ulcer or warty lump on the penis that slowly spreads.
  • Tender or swollen lymph nodes in the groin or abdomen.
  • Bleeding during urination.
  • Painful or difficult urination.

The last two symptoms can apply to many other conditions and may not necessarily mean you have penile cancer. This is why it is important that you see your GP as soon as you notice anything unusual.

Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) diagnosis

Your doctor will examine any sores or lump and refer you to a specialist if needed. The specialist may take samples for microscope examination, or perform a biopsy test on a small piece of tissue.

If cancer is detected you will need further tests to find out how developed the cancer is and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Tests could include:

Computerised tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • A CT scan takes x-rays of your body from different angles to make a detailed cross-sectional image.
  • Sometimes a dye is injected to make the images more detailed.
  • MRI uses magnetic fields instead of x-rays to produce similar images.
  • Sometimes a bone scan may also be performed, to check whether the cancer has spread to your bones.

Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) treatment

Surgery

  • Usually the first line of treatment, particularly in the early stages and when the cancer is limited to the foreskin.
  • Involves removal of the foreskin (circumcision).
  • Microsurgery can often remove small tumours on the head of the penis.

For more advanced small tumours at the tip of the penis, a partial penectomy (removal of a portion of the penis) may be carried out under general anaesthetic. Laser surgery is another option, although this is still in its experimental stage.

For very advanced tumours, a total penectomy (amputation of the whole penis) is required. A new urethral opening for urine to pass through is made in the groin area.

It is possible to have a penis reconstructed after amputation.

Radiotherapy

  • Beams of radiation are used to destroy cancer cells, while avoiding harming normal cells.
  • Usually used alongside surgery on early stage tumours, and those that have not yet spread.
  • The treatment is usually painless, although there may be some short-term side effects such as skin irritation, cystitis, and blood in the urine.

Chemotherapy

  • Special anti-cancer (cytotoxic) medicines are used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Usually used in advanced cases where the cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Chemotherapy has many side effects. These vary depending on the exact medicine that is taken.

Need more information?

Visit your GP or consultant if you're concerned about penile cancer symptoms or treatment.

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