What Is Penile Cancer?
Penile cancer, or cancer of the penis, is a relatively rare form
of cancer that affects the skin and tissues of the penis. It occurs when
normally healthy cells in the penis become cancerous and begin to grow out of
control, forming a tumor. The cancer may eventually spread to other areas of
the body, including the glands, other organs, and lymph nodes. Approximately 1,300
cases of penile cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year.
What Are the Symptoms of Penile Cancer?
The first noticeable symptom of penile cancer is typically a
lump, mass, or ulcer on the penis. It may look like a small, insignificant bump
or a large, infected sore. In most cases, it will be located on the head or
foreskin instead of on the shaft of the penis.
Other symptoms of penile cancer include:
- changes in the color of the penis
- thickening of the penile skin
- swollen lymph nodes in the groin
Call your doctor right away if you’re experiencing any of these
symptoms. Getting an early diagnosis and treatment is critical for increasing
the chances of a positive outcome.
What Are the Risk Factors for Penile Cancer?
Men living in Asia, Africa, and South America have a higher risk
of developing penile cancer. Approximately 10
to 20 per 100,000 men are diagnosed with the condition every year in these
Men who are uncircumcised are also more likely to be diagnosed
with penile cancer. This may be because uncircumcised men are at risk for other
conditions that affect the penis, such as phimosis and smegma. Phimosis is a
condition in which the foreskin becomes tight and difficult to retract. Men
with phimosis have a high risk of developing smegma. Smegma is a substance that
forms when dead skin cells, moisture, and oil collect underneath the foreskin.
It may also develop when uncircumcised men fail to clean the area under the
Men are also at an increased risk for penile cancer if they:
- are over age 60
- smoke cigarettes
- practice poor personal hygiene
- live in a region with poor sanitation and
- have multiple sexual partners
- have a sexually transmitted infection, such as the
How Is Penile Cancer Diagnosed?
Your doctor can make a penile cancer diagnosis by performing a
physical examination and by performing certain diagnostic tests.
During the physical exam, your doctor will look at your penis and
inspect any lumps, masses, or sores that are present. If cancer is suspected,
your doctor will likely want to perform a biopsy. A biopsy involves the removal of a small sample of skin or tissue
from the penis. The sample is then analyzed to determine whether cancer cells
If the biopsy results show signs of cancer, your doctor may want
to perform a cystoscopy to see if
the cancer has spread. A cystoscopy
is a procedure that involves the use of an instrument called a cystoscope. A
cystoscope is a thin tube with a small camera and light at the end. During
cystoscopy, your doctor will gently insert the cystoscope into the penis
opening and through the bladder. This allows your doctor to view the different
areas of the penis and the surrounding structures, making it possible to
determine whether the cancer has spread.
In some cases, an MRI of the penis is sometimes conducted to make
sure that cancer hasn’t invaded the deeper tissues of the penis.
Stages of Penile Cancer
There are six stages of penile cancer. The stage of the cancer
describes how far the cancer has spread. Based on the results of the diagnostic
tests, your doctor will determine which stage you are currently in. This will
help them determine the best treatment plan for you and allow them to estimate
your outlook. The staging criteria for penile cancer are outlined in the table
How Is Penile Cancer Treated?
The two main types of penile cancer are invasive and noninvasive.
Noninvasive penile cancer is a condition in which the cancer hasn’t spread to
deeper tissues, lymph nodes, and glands. Invasive penile cancer is a condition
in which the cancer has moved deep into the penis tissue and surrounding lymph
nodes and glands.
Some of the main treatments for noninvasive penile cancer
- circumcision, which involves the removal of the
foreskin of the penis
- laser therapy, which
uses high-intensity light to destroy tumors and cancer cells
- chemotherapy, which is
an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy that helps eliminate cancer cells
in the body
therapy, which uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer
which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze tumors and remove them
Treatment for invasive penile cancer requires major surgery.
Surgery may involve the removal of the tumor, entire penis, or lymph nodes in
the groin and pelvis.
Excisional surgery may
be performed to remove the tumor from the penis. You’ll be given a local
anesthetic, which will numb the area and prevent you from feeling any pain.
Your surgeon will then remove the tumor and affected area, leaving a border of
healthy tissue and skin. The incision will be closed with stitches.
Moh’s surgery is
another type of surgery that might be done to treat penile cancer. The goal of
Moh’s surgery is to remove the least amount of tissue possible while still
getting rid of all the cancer cells. During the procedure, your surgeon will
remove a thin layer of the affected area and then examine it under a microscope
to determine whether it contains cancer cells. This process is repeated until
there are no cancer cells present in the tissue samples.
Partial penectomy is
a surgery that removes part of the penis. This operation will only work if the
tumor is less than 2 centimeters in diameter. For tumors larger than 2
centimeters, the entire penis will have to be removed. Full removal of the
penis is called a total penectomy.
Regardless of the type of surgery performed, you’ll need to
follow up with your doctor every two to four months during the first year after
your surgery. If your entire penis is removed, your cancer will have to be in
full remission for at least two years before you can be a candidate for penis
What Is the Long-Term Outlook for People with Penile
Many people who are diagnosed with penile cancer in the early
stages often make a full recovery. In fact, the cure rate for people with tumors
that never spread to the glands or lymph nodes is 80
to 100 percent. Once the cancer reaches the lymph nodes in the groin, however,
the survival rate drops to less
than 50 percent within a five-year period.
It’s important to note that these are general statistics and that
your outlook may differ depending on your age and overall health. The most
important thing you can do to increase your chances of recovery is to stick
with the treatment plan suggested by your doctor.
Coping with Penile Cancer
It’s important to have a strong support network that can help you
deal with any anxiety or stress you may be feeling. You may also want to consider
joining a cancer support group where you can discuss your concerns with others
who can relate to what you’re going through. Ask your doctor about support
groups in your area. You can also find information on support groups on the National
Cancer Institute and the American
Cancer Society websites.