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Penile cancer occurs when malignant growths form on a man’s penis.

Almost all penile cancers come from skin cells called squamous cells. The growths are usually on the foreskin in uncircumcised men, and on the tip of the penis in circumcised men.

According to the American Cancer Society, penile cancer is rare. It accounts for fewer than 1% of cancers in men in the United States. Every year, doctors diagnose about 2,200 new cases in the U.S., and about 440 men die from it.

What Causes Penile Cancer?

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of penile cancer. Risk factors that make it more likely that you’ll develop the disease include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a group of related viruses that pass from person to person through unprotected sex or other skin-to-skin contact.
  • Tobacco use. Men who smoke have a higher rate of penile cancer than those who don’t.
  • Age. About 80% of men who have penile cancer are over age 55.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV infection has shown to be associated with penile cancer.
  • Having an uncircumcised penis. Infant circumcision can lower the rate of penile cancer in adulthood.
  • Phimosis. Sometimes the foreskin becomes tight and difficult to retract, a condition known as phimosis. This can make examination of the penis and detection of penile cancer more difficult.
  • Poor hygiene. Poor hygiene can lead to chronic inflammation, which has been associated with penile cancer.

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What Are the Signs of Penile Cancer?

Early symptoms of penile cancer resemble those of genital warts and infections that aren’t cancerous. It’s important to see your doctor right away if you notice these changes in your genital area:

  • Painless lumps
  • Redness or irritation
  • A sore that bleeds
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • A red rash under the foreskin
  • Crusty bumps
  • Flat, dark-colored growths
  • A bad-smelling discharge from under the foreskin
  • Swelling at the end of the penis

If the cancer has spread from the penis, you may also feel swelling of the lymph nodes in your groin.

How Will My Doctor Know I Have Penile Cancer?

Your doctor will talk to you about your health history, symptoms, and risk factors. They will examine your genital area and feel your lymph nodes.

The only way your doctor can be certain you have penile cancer is to do a biopsy. They take a small piece of tissue from the affected area and examine it under a microscope.

If your doctor thinks you may have penile cancer that has spread, they will order imaging tests such as:

  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Ultrasound
  • X-rays

Is Penile Cancer Curable?

If doctors find penile cancer early, chances for a cure are better. It’s important not to let embarrassment or fear stop you from going to the doctor. Doctors can treat early stage penile cancer with less invasive therapies.

Advanced penile cancer is treatable, but often requires more invasive procedures.

How Is Penile Cancer Treated?

Doctors classify penile cancer by stages O through IV. The higher the number (i.e. stage IV) the more serious the cancer. Your doctor will determine the stage of your cancer and discuss with you the best treatment for it.

    • Surgery is the most common way to treat penile cancer. There are different kinds of surgery, depending on the location and size of the cancer. Microscopic and laser surgery can remove the cancer while saving as much normal tissue as possible.
    • Radiation is an alternative to surgery, especially if the tumor is small. Radiation uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. It is also used to keep cancer from returning.
    • Chemotherapy is a treatment for more advanced penile cancer. If your cancer has spread beyond the penis, chemo drugs enter the body through a needle into a vein (IV).
    • Topical
      are available for low-risk penile cancers. Close monitoring and follow-up will be required.

For more information or to make an appointment, contact the UPMC Department of Urology at 412-692-4100.

American Cancer Society, If You Have Penile Cancer. Link.

American Cancer Society, Risk Factors for Penile Cancer. Link.

American Cancer Society, Penile Cancer. Link.

National Cancer Institute, Penile Cancer. Link.

National Cancer Institute, Penile Cancer Treatment. Link.

Urology Care Foundation, What is Penile Cancer? Link.

About Urology

The UPMC Department of Urology offers a wide variety of specialized care for diseases of the male and female urinary tract and the male reproductive organs, including erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, urinary incontinence, prostate cancer, and more. We have a multifaceted team of physicians and researchers working together to provide the best care to both children and adults. Our team is nationally renowned for expertise in highly specialized technologies and minimally invasive surgical techniques. To find a provider near you, visit our website.