Penile cancer is rare, with just over 2,000 men getting it per year in the U.S. It usually can be treated successfully if it’s caught early, but it can be life-threatening if it’s not.
Types of Penile Cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma: This makes up about 95% of all cancers of the penis. You get this in the thin, flat cells on the surface of your skin. It usually shows up on the head of the penis or sometimes on the foreskin of men who haven’t been circumcised.
Melanoma: It starts in the cells that make the pigment in your skin. It grows quickly and can be more dangerous than other types of cancers.
Basal cell carcinomas: They grow slowly and don’t normally spread to other parts of the body.
In rare cases, cancer can form in the sweat glands in the skin of the penis, or in the blood vessels or muscles inside the organ. Cancers that develop in the sweat glands are known as adenocarcinomas, while cancers that start in the blood vessel or muscle are called sarcomas.
Who Is More Likely to Get It?
Doctors can’t pinpoint the cause of most penile cancers. But there are a variety of things that may make you more likely than other men to get them. They include:
- Infection with the human papilloma virus, or HPV. This is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause other cancers in men and women, and it’s the cause for about 35% of penile cancers.
- If you haven’t been circumcised, you might be at higher risk of penile cancer. The most common form of penile cancer usually starts on or under the foreskin, but good personal hygiene can lower your risk.
- Age. Penile cancers are more likely to occur in men over 60.
- A history of smoking, which has been linked to many types of cancer.
- You may also be more likely to get cancer if you have AIDS, which weakens the immune system.
There are a variety of things you might see that could be a sign of penile cancer, including:
- Redness, irritation, or a lump on the penis.
- A growth, sore, or rash on your penis that doesn’t go away within a few weeks.
- Bleeding from the skin or from beneath the foreskin.
- A change in color of the penis or foreskin.
If you suspect something is wrong, your doctor will examine your penis for signs of a problem. If that exam points to a possible cancer, you’ll probably be asked to undergo a biopsy, in which a small portion of cells are removed for further study.
If a growth turns out to be cancerous, doctors will want to figure out whether that cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
That means you’ll likely be asked to take other tests -- such as X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, or an ultrasound -- so doctors can look for signs of cancer beyond your penis. What kind of treatment you’ll need will depend on what is found.
The most common treatment for penile cancer is surgery.
If the cancer is limited to a small area, a surgeon might remove it by cutting away the tumor and a small amount of nearby skin layer by layer, until it’s gone.
Your doctors might also use a laser to remove the tumor, or freeze and destroy the tissue. You may hear your doctor or nurse call this cryotherapy.
The sooner penile cancer is detected, the less involved the surgery needs to be. However, many men put off treatment after they notice the problem. If cancer spreads before you go to the doctor, you might need more invasive surgery. Some reasons it’s important to act early:
- Doctors might have to remove part of the penis, or even the whole organ.
- They might also have to remove the lymph nodes in your groin to make sure that those organs don’t spread cancer throughout your body.
- After surgery, you might have to have chemotherapy or radiation treatments to kill any cancer cells your doctors couldn’t remove by surgery.
Doctors will try to save as much as your penis as possible, and most men continue with a fulfilling sex life after treatment.