What Is Penile Cancer?

Penile cancer starts on the skin cells of the penis and can work its way inside.

It’s rare. But it can be treated, especially if it’s found early on.

In the U.S., doctors find it in fewer than 2,000 men per year. If you or someone you love has it, you’ll want to know what your options are.

Causes

Experts don’t know exactly what causes this disease.

Not being circumcised may make it more likely. If bodily fluids get trapped in the foreskin and aren’t washed away, they may contribute to the growth of cancer cells.

Some research suggests that men who are exposed to certain strains of HPV (human papillomavirus) may also be more likely to get penile cancer.

This type of cancer is more common in men over age 60, in smokers, and in those who have a weakened immune system.

Symptoms

Changes in the penis skin are the most common symptom of penile cancer. They can show up on the foreskin of uncircumcised men, or on the penis tip (the glans) or shaft.

Warning signs of the disease can include:

  • Changes in thickness or color of skin on the penis
  • A lump on it
  • A rash or small “crusty” bumps on it
  • Growths on the penis that look bluish-brown
  • Smelly discharge underneath the foreskin
  • A sore on the penis, which may be bleeding
  • Swelling at the end of the penis
  • Lumps under the skin in the groin area

Most men with these symptoms don’t have penile cancer. Instead, it’s an infection or an allergic reaction. Even so, it’s important to get any unusual symptoms on or near your penis checked out right away. Early treatment is best.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will give you a physical exam, talk with you about your symptoms, and may recommend other tests, such as:

A biopsy. The doctor will take a small sample of tissue from the penis or other areas (such as lymph nodes). Lab tests will check it for cancer cells.

Fine needle aspiration. The doctor will insert a very thin needle into lymph nodes near the affected area to get fluid from them. Lab tests will show if those nodes contain cancer cells.

Imaging tests, like X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These look inside your body for tumors or other signs that cancer has spread.

Continued

Treatments

If your cancer is in the early stages, your treatment may include:

  • A medicine that goes on your skin as a cream
  • Cryotherapy, a procedure that uses an extremely cold liquid or a device to freeze and destroy tissue that contains cancer
  • Mohs surgery, in which doctors remove affected skin, one layer at a time, until they reach normal, healthy tissue
  • Lasers to cut and destroy areas that contain cancer
  • Circumcision, which is surgery to remove the foreskin. You would have this procedure if you only had cancer in your foreskin.

If your cancer is advanced, treatment may involve any of the above, and/or:

  • Surgery to remove your lymph nodes if your cancer has spread to them
  • Radiation and/or chemotherapy to rid your body of cancer cells
  • A penectomy, which is surgery to remove some or all of your penis

Most treatments for early-stage penile cancer don’t affect your ability to have sex, but chemotherapy and radiation may. Talk to your doctor about possible side effects.

Clinical Trials

Scientists are looking for new ways to treat early and advanced penile cancer in these studies, which test new drugs to see if they're safe and if they work. Clinical trials often are a way for people to try new medicine that isn't available to everyone. Your doctor can tell you if one of these studies might be a good fit for you.

Before you sign up, ask for information on what’s involved, and what the risks and benefits would be. You can learn more about different trials throughout the U.S. at the National Cancer Institute’s web site, http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials.

Resources and Support

Ask your doctor about support groups at your hospital or in your community. You can also find support groups for men with penile cancer online.

As you go through your treatment, it can also help to talk with a therapist or social worker who works with people who have cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stuart Bergman, MD on October 21, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Signs and Symptoms of Penile Cancer.”

Cancer Research UK: “Risks and Causes of Penile Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “General Information About Penile Cancer”; “Penile Cancer Treatment.”

Adam Ramin, MD, urologist, Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA; founder and medical director, Urology Cancer Specialists, Los Angeles.

Urology Care Foundation: “Penile Cancer.”

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