Penile cancer

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at March 31, 2016
StartDiseasesPenile cancer

Penile cancer affects about 1 in 100,000 men a year in the United States. In 2016 alone, there have already been over two thousand cases. It is important to know the warning signs of penile cancer as well as how to effectively treat it in order to combat such a serious illness.


Definition & Facts

A human penis is composed of skin cells, muscle cells, nervous tissue, and blood. The skin cells provide a layer of protection and are generally flat cells that are stacked over each other like discs; they are called squamous cells.

These flat squamous cells sometimes grow uncontrollably and develop a malignancy, otherwise known as penile cancer. Squamous cell malignancies comprise 95% of penile cancer cases, while the other 5% are rarer cancers in connective tissue or other cells that are not part of the skin.

Penile cancer affects roughly 1 in 100,000 men in the United States. The statistics fluctuate more for other parts of the world but penile cancer is generally considered to be rare, especially when compared to other cancers. Though rare, penile cancer still affects thousands of families every year. Individuals can educate themselves to learn the warning signs of penile cancer and how to prevent it.

Symptoms & Complaints

The penis is a sensitive organ and should be checked regularly for any abnormalities such as redness or lumps. Colored discharge leaking from the penis or any sores on it should also immediately be reported to a healthcare provider. Irritation and pain when urinating are also possible symptoms of penile cancer.

Erectile dysfunction can also be caused by a malignancy on the penis if the tumor blocks nerve signals or blood flow. Like all cancers, penile cancer may have no symptoms in its early stages. It is important to undergo regular physical tests at a doctor's office and to share any abnormal sensations or symptoms with a healthcare provider as soon as possible, especially if there is a family history of cancer.


There are several causes for penile cancer many of which increase with age. A male infected by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is contracted by sexual intercourse with an infected partner has an increased risk of developing penile cancer. Uncircumcised males are also at higher risk because they have more skin cells in their foreskin, and skin cells are the likeliest to contain malignant growths.

Males over the age of sixty are at higher risk for all kinds of cancers, including penile cancer. Smoking, promiscuity, and poor hygiene all increase the risk of developing penile cancer, as does a genetic predisposition for cancerous growths. Autoimmune diseases also make cancer more likely as well as immunodeficiencies like HIV.

Diagnosis & Tests

Penile cancer can be diagnosed with imaging tests or biopsies. The first step is usually a physical examination in which a physician notes anything out of the ordinary in terms of physiology or symptoms. Family history is taken at this time and the penis is checked for signs like lumps while the patient is asked about symptoms like pain or discharge. If a lump is found, the doctor will take a biopsy or drain it to assess the cells inside and see if they are cancerous.

In a biopsy, either the entire lump or just a piece of it is removed depending on the growth's size. This typically does not harm any of the penis's functions, but there is always a minimal risk of infection with any procedure. Imaging tests like CT scans and ultrasounds may also be used, but this typically happens once a growth is already found in order to assess its severity and to see if it has spread. Sometimes MRIs are used but this is rare for penile cancer.

Cancer is diagnosed in stages according to the severity of the malignancy. Once the cancer is found, lymph nodes are checked to discover if the cancer has metastasized. Stage one means no spread has happened and is usually treatable with only a biopsy. Stage two indicates that the penis has been almost completely surrounded by cancer cells and is curable with partial penile amputation or radiation therapy.

Stages three and four mean that the cancer has spread to lymph nodes and has begun to travel throughout the individual's body. Stages three and four are difficult to cure, but stages one and two are easier to treat by removing the cancerous cells.

Treatment & Therapy

There are three main ways to treat penile cancer: surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Sometimes, all three methods may be combined. Surgery can range from anywhere to removing the tumor to amputating the entire penis. Sometimes, circumcision is performed because the cancer might reside in only the foreskin.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are often performed for cancer in stages three and four. Patients can also opt to participate in clinical trials, but this might not always be an effective treatment. However, these trials come with the reward of advancing progress toward the goal of curing cancer.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Some cases of penile cancer can be preventable. If the individual has a family history of cancer, it is imperative that they share this information with their healthcare provider and conduct cancer screenings regularly. The individual can also regularly assess their body for any unusual redness, lumps, irritation, or discharge. Furthermore, it is wise to stay away from habits like smoking or excessive drinking, since they can both contribute to penile cancer.

Since penile cancer involves a reproductive organ, it is important to use protection when engaging in sexual intercourse and regularly screen oneself for sexually transmitted diseases like HPV and HIV. People that have immune system deficiencies and illnesses should also regularly undergo cancer checkups. Men can also help prevent penile cancer by practicing healthy hygiene habits, such as ensuring that they thoroughly clean their foreskin and checking for protruding growths.