Key Points about Penile Cancer
- Penile cancer affects the penis and can begin in any of the tissues of the penis.
- Doctors use imaging tests and physical exams to diagnose and stage penile cancer.
- Treatment for penile cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Penile cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow out of control in the penis (the external male reproductive organ). Abnormal cells can grow in any type of tissue in the penis, including the skin, nerves, blood vessels and smooth muscle.
Penile cancer causes
Penile cancer is caused by abnormal cells growing in the penis. In some cases, the cancer can metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body.
Penile cancer risk factors
The following factors may increase your risk for developing penile cancer:
- Being a smoker
- Being over the age of 55
- Being uncircumcised
- Having HIV/AIDS
- Having human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Having phimosis (a condition in which the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis is tight and cannot contract correctly)
- Having smegma buildup (secretions that can accumulate underneath an uncircumcised penis without proper cleaning)
- Having undergone ultraviolet (UV) light treatment for psoriasis
Penile cancer symptoms
Symptoms of penile cancer can include the following changes to the penis:
- A lump you can feel
- A reddish rash around or under the foreskin
- An area of thickened skin
- An ulcer (sore) that can bleed
- Changes in the color of the skin
- Flat growths that are bluish-brown in color
- Small, crusty bumps
- Smelly discharge (fluid) or bleeding from underneath the foreskin
- Swelling at the end of the penis
In addition, you may also notice lumps in the groin area due to swollen lymph nodes.
Penile cancer diagnosis
Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:
- Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors.
- Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your penis. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your penis and surrounding areas. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - this type of imaging test uses radio waves and magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
- Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your penis and surrounding areas.
Penile cancer treatments
Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your penile cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:
- Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered via a pill taken orally (by mouth) or an intravenous or IV liquid (injected into a vein).
- Radiation therapy - during this treatment, your oncologist uses high-energy beams or rays to destroy cancerous cells. Radiation therapy may be an option if your penile cancer is in a smaller area.
- Surgery - the most common treatment for penile cancer, this treatment involves removing the cancerous cells during a surgical procedure. When possible, the penis itself is left intact. In more advanced stages of penile cancer, some of the penis may also need to be removed.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a urologic oncologist for more specialized treatment.