When detected early, treatment for penile cancer is often successful.
Penis or penile cancer is any type of cancer that initially develops within the skin cells of the penis and works its way inward. With just over 2,000 new cases diagnosed annually in the United States, penile cancer is considered rare.
- It’s not known what causes penile cancer, although it may be more prevalent in men who are not circumcised since body fluids may get trapped within foreskin.
- It has also been linked to certain treatments for psoriasis.
Signs of Penile Cancer
Some type of change in skin appearance or thickness is often the first noticeable sign of penile cancer. The foreskin and tip of the penis (glans) are most likely to be affected, although the shaft and testicles may be affected as well. If symptoms and the origin of the cancer are limited to the scrotum or testicles, it’s referred to as testicular cancer. Abnormalities on the penis that might be cancerous aren’t always painful. Additional symptoms affecting other parts of the penis beyond the testicles may include:
- Crusty bumps or visible lumps
- An ulcer that bleeds
- Odorous discharge under the foreskin
- Growths that appear flat and/or blue or brown in color
How Is It Diagnosed?
A physical exam usually includes an examination of the groin and lymph nodes for visible signs of swelling. If an initial evaluation suggests possible penile cancer, a biopsy may be done. Image tests are sometimes ordered to determine if other tissues are affected.
Treating Penile Cancer
Treatment will be based on whether or not the cancer has spread (metastasis) and, if so, how far it has spread from the original site. This is known as staging. Cryotherapy is a treatment option that involves the use of extreme cold to freeze and destroy malignant tissue. Minimally invasive laser surgery where affected tissue is cut away is another possible option for treatment.
Some patients benefit from Mohs surgery, a procedure where cancerous tissues are removed layer by layer until healthy tissue is reached. If penile cancer is limited to the area around the foreskin, circumcision may be recommended. Advanced cancer is sometimes treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, removal of all or part of nearby inguinal lymph nodes, or partial or complete removal of the penis (penectomy).
Can It Be Prevented?
As with most cancers, penile cancer isn’t always preventable. Even so, it is possible for men to take steps to lower the risk of developing cancerous growths in this area. Circumcision is often suggested as a preventative measure, although this step alone doesn’t automatically mean penile cancer won’t develop. Improved personal hygiene, especially for men with foreskin, may also reduce the risk of developing penile cancer.
More common in older men, penile cancer risk factors include HPV infections, immune system disorders, smoking, and buildup of a thick substance known as smegma under foreskin. Because there are many possible causes of pain or irritation affecting the penis or groin, patients are often referred to a urologist for further evaluation. Treatment for early stage cancer usually doesn’t affect functioning of the penis.