Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer)

Cancer of the penis, or penile cancer, rarely affects men under 40, and only 1 in 100,000 men overall. It is a potentially fatal condition.

With penile cancer, tumours usually appear on the end of the penis or on the foreskin. In North America, where circumcision is routinely performed, penile cancer is rare. Bacterial production of smegma (a cheese-like substance that can form under the foreskin of the penis) may be a risk factor. Unprotected sexual relations with multiple partners and cigarette smoking are also risk factors.

As with all cancers, penile tumours occur when cells abnormally divide and grow forming a lump. Tumours can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body, although they can press on surrounding organs, affecting their function. Malignant tumours are able to spread beyond their original site. Sometimes cells break off and travel in the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other organs in the body, growing new tumours there.

Please note: the information below does not constitute medical advice. If you have any concerns at all, speak to your GP or consultant.

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Learn more about Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer)

Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) symptoms

Doctors recommend regular self-examination to catch any changes at an early stage. If you notice any of the following, make an appointment to see your GP:

  • A pimple-like, painless sore on the end of the penis or on the foreskin.
  • Any other painless sore or warts on the penis.
  • A persistent sore spot, ulcer or warty lump on the penis that slowly spreads.
  • Tender or swollen lymph nodes in the groin or abdomen.
  • Bleeding during urination.
  • Painful or difficult urination.

The last two symptoms can apply to many other conditions and may not necessarily mean you have penile cancer. This is why it is important that you see your GP as soon as you notice anything unusual.

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Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) diagnosis

Your doctor will examine any sores or lump and refer you to a specialist if needed. The specialist may take samples for microscope examination, or perform a biopsy test on a small piece of tissue.

If cancer is detected you will need further tests to find out how developed the cancer is and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Tests could include:

Computerised tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • A CT scan takes x-rays of your body from different angles to make a detailed cross-sectional image.
  • Sometimes a dye is injected to make the images more detailed.
  • MRI uses magnetic fields instead of x-rays to produce similar images.
  • Sometimes a bone scan may also be performed, to check whether the cancer has spread to your bones.

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Cancer of the Penis (Penile Cancer) treatment

Surgery

  • Usually the first line of treatment, particularly in the early stages and when the cancer is limited to the foreskin.
  • Involves removal of the foreskin (circumcision).
  • Microsurgery can often remove small tumours on the head of the penis.

For more advanced small tumours at the tip of the penis, a partial penectomy (removal of a portion of the penis) may be carried out under general anaesthetic. Laser surgery is another option, although this is still in its experimental stage.

For very advanced tumours, a total penectomy (amputation of the whole penis) is required. A new urethral opening for urine to pass through is made in the groin area.

It is possible to have a penis reconstructed after amputation.

Radiotherapy

  • Beams of radiation are used to destroy cancer cells, while avoiding harming normal cells.
  • Usually used alongside surgery on early stage tumours, and those that have not yet spread.
  • The treatment is usually painless, although there may be some short-term side effects such as skin irritation, cystitis, and blood in the urine.

Chemotherapy

  • Special anti-cancer (cytotoxic) medicines are used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Usually used in advanced cases where the cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Chemotherapy has many side effects. These vary depending on the exact medicine that is taken.

Need more information?

Visit your GP or consultant if you're concerned about penile cancer symptoms or treatment.

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How TUF Helps

Understanding a little-understood cancer

Simon’s TUF-funded research aims to determine what genetic and epigenetic changes take place in the development of Penile Cancer. Specifically, Simon is looking to find out what the early changes are in an individual tumour and how they are responsible for the development of the cancer.

His hope is that, by understanding these changes, scientists can begin to devise new tests that can diagnose the cancer and new treatments which can target its vulnerabilities.

Simon told us,

This has been very exciting work! It has generated huge amounts of data on penile cancer that simply weren’t there before. That data is currently being analysed, but the initial results indicate that there are extensive genetic and epigenetic changes in the early stages of the cancer.

“The DNA code within each cell provides the blueprint for how a cell should function.  A genetic change is a mutation or change within actual DNA code. An epigenetic change is the change in the machinery which switches different parts of the DNA ‘on’ or ‘off’. Either type of change – whether within the DNA itself or the machinery that controls it – could potentially result in the cell becoming cancerous.

“Our research has also shown that some treatments only target mutations that occur in a small part of the cancer, which could quickly cause the treatment to fail and the cancer to recur. We therefore identified which mutations are present in all regions of a tumour, rather than only in one section of the cancer. This would enable us to devise treatments that target the whole cancer.

“The next step for the research will be to test the hypotheses we’ve already developed. We’ll start this by using a range of targeted and immune treatments in advanced penile cancer patients.”

 

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How You Can Help

All of the work that we do to fight urology disease is funded by supporters across the country. Without support from people like you, we cannot do what we do.

When you donate to The Urology Foundation you join the front line of the fight against urology disease. Your money helps us to:

  • Fund ground breaking research into urology diseases so that we can find better cures and treatments
  • Provide training and education to equip all urology professionals with the tools they need to support and treat patients in hospitals across the UK and Ireland

Donate today to be a part of this fight. Or, to find out other ways you could support TUF, visit our Get Involved page.

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