Five Things You Need to Know About Penile Cancer

Penile cancer is a rare disease, affecting just 1 in 100,000 men in North American and Europe, in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the penis. While not common in the United States, it can account for up to 10 percent of male cancers in parts of Asia, South America, and Africa. Here are five things you should know about penile cancer.

What are the risk factors for penile cancer?

Men older than 60 and those with poor personal hygiene, who have many sexual partners, or use tobacco products, are at a higher risk of developing penile cancer. Uncircumcised men are also at a higher risk, as circumcision lessens a man’s risk of developing human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause penile and other cancers. Circumcised men also cannot develop phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin of the penis becomes too tight, which is a risk factor.

What are the symptoms of penile cancer?

Mark Preston, MD
Mark Preston, MD, treats men with penile cancer in Dana-Farber’s Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology.

Signs of penile cancer include sores, discharge, bleeding, and other changes to the skin on the tip or foreskin of the penis. While these symptoms don’t always indicate cancer, if you notice changes in your skin, lumps, or swelling, see a doctor, even if you aren’t experiencing pain.

How is penile cancer diagnosed?

Penile cancer is diagnosed through a physical exam and biopsy. If cancer is detected, doctors will use imaging tests, including CT scans, MRIs, or ultrasounds, to determine the cancer’s stage.

How is penile cancer treated?

Penile cancer is most commonly treated with surgery, which may involve laser surgery, circumcision, removal of part of or the entire penis, and may also include removing lymph nodes in the groin. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are also commonly used to treat penile cancer, often in combination with surgery. Depending on the stage and the patient, immunotherapy may also be used.

What are the side effects of penile cancer treatment?

Many men who have been treated for penile cancer are able to control their urination and engage in sexual activity as before treatment. However, if treatment involved removing all or part of the penis, normal intercourse or urination may not be possible. This treatment may also have an effect on a man’s self-image and confidence. Speaking with a therapist can help men with their emotional health following treatment.