Penile cancer

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the skin or tissues of the penis. There are less than 550 new cases each year in the UK and it is most often diagnosed in men over 50.

Introduction

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the skin or tissues of the penis. There are less than 550 new cases each year in the UK and it is most often diagnosed in men over 50.

You should be aware of any abnormalities or signs of penile cancer, including:

  • a sore or lump on the penis
  • a change of skin colour in the affected area
  • the thickening of the foreskin or skin of the penis
  • a rash

If you experience these symptoms, it is important they are checked by your doctor as soon as possible. Although it is unlikely they are caused by penile cancer, they should be investigated, especially if they do not heal within three weeks.

Any delay in getting a diagnosis could reduce your chances of successful treatment.

What causes penile cancer?

While the exact cause of penile cancer is not known, there are certain things that can increase your chances of developing it.

Smoking is the most important lifestyle aspect that can increase the risk of penile cancer.

Men who carry the [human papillomavirus (HPV)], which causes genital warts, are also at an increased risk of developing penile cancer.

Conditions like phimosis, which makes the foreskin difficult to retract, can increase the chances of infections such as balanitis. Repeated infections are linked to a higher risk of some types of penile cancer.

Types of penile cancer

There are many types of penile cancer, depending on the kind of cell the cancer developed from.

The most common types include:

  • squamous cell penile cancer, which accounts for more than 90% of cases and starts in the cells that cover the surface of the penis
  • carcinoma in situ (CIS), which is related to squamous cell cancer, is when the cancer cells have not yet spread any deeper than the skin of the penis, but can do if left untreated
  • adenocarninoma, which accounts for about 5% of cases and starts in the glandular cells of the penis that produce sweat

Diagnosis

Your doctor can examine you for signs of penile cancer and may refer you to a specialist. A specialist will ask you about any symptoms and examine you for physical signs.

To make a firm diagnosis you may need to have a biopsy. This is an operation to remove some tissue for study. A biopsy can be carried out under either local anaesthetic or general anaesthetic.

You may also have a blood test to check your general health.

Treatment

The treatment for penile cancer depends on the size of the affected area and the rate at which the cancer has spread.

In most cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS), for example, treatment involves the use of creams or laser surgery.

The main treatment for other cancer types is surgery, which involves the removal of the cancer cells and possibly some of the surrounding tissue.

In most cases, physical changes to your penis after an operation can be corrected with reconstructive surgery. This often involves taking skin and muscle from elsewhere in the body to recreate a functioning penis.

However, with early diagnosis and modern surgical techniques, surgery has become much better at preserving as much penile tissue as possible.

In some cases, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are also used.

As part of most treatments, the lymph glands (small bean-shaped organs that make up part of the immune system) in the groin will be assessed to determine if the cancer has spread. The test for this, called a sentinel node biopsy, is now widely available in the UK. In some cases, these glands may need to be surgically removed.

As with most types of cancer, the outlook for individual cases depends largely on how far the cancer has advanced at the time of diagnosis.

Prevention

It is not always possible to prevent penile cancer, but it may be possible to reduce your chances of developing the condition.

It is also important to maintain good penis hygiene to prevent the infections and viruses that can increase the risk of penile cancer.

This is easier if you were circumcised as a child, but there are steps you can take if you have not been circumcised. There is little evidence to suggest that being circumcised as an adult will reduce your chances of developing penile cancer.

Simple penis hygiene can include:

  • using condoms to help reduce the possibility of catching HPV
  • keeping your penis clean, including under the foreskin

Read more about [penis health].

Want to know more?

  • Cancer
  • Cancer Research UK: penile (penis) cancer
  • Macmillan: cancer of the penis (penile cancer)
Content supplied by NHS Choices