Penile cancer is a type of cancer that can affect males. It affects the penis and broader genital area. It is a rare cancer but often curable in the early stages.

Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of penile cancer.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Penile cancer is a rare disease, affecting less than 1 in every 100,000 U.S. males annually.

Penile cancer develops on or in the penis, which consists of many different types of cells. The type of cell that cancer affects will help determine the best course of treatment for a person.

The most common type of penile cancer appears in the squamous cells, which are flat skin cells. This type of cancer typically starts in the glands at the tip of the penis or on the foreskin of uncircumcised men.

Squamous cell carcinoma spreads slowly, and it is typically treatable and even curable if doctors catch it in the early stages.

Less common types of penile cancer include:

  • Verrucous carcinoma: A growth that resembles a large genital wart.
  • Carcinoma in situ (CIS): The earliest stage of squamous cell cancer that has not yet penetrated deeper into the penis.
  • Melanoma: A type of skin cancer that can form on the penis.
  • Basal cell carcinoma: Another type of skin cancer that can develop on the penis.
  • Adenocarcinoma: A rare type of cancer that forms in the sweat glands of the penis.
  • Sarcoma: A very rare form of penile cancer that affects the connective tissue, muscles, and blood vessels in the penis.

Doctors typically define cancer by the stage of its progression as follows.

  • In situ: Cancer cells are detectable, but they have not spread.
  • Localized: Cancer cells are present within the area they originated.
  • Regional: Cancer cells have spread to nearby tissue or organs.
  • Distant: Cancer has spread to distant tissues or organs.
  • Unknown: Doctors are unable to define the presence and spread of cancer.

Learn more about the different forms of cancer in our dedicated hub.

Almost all forms of penile cancer first present as skin disturbances.

These symptoms may appear similar to other more common conditions, so it is best for people with any visible changes in their penis to speak to a doctor, as early detection improves the likelihood of successful treatment.

The signs and symptoms of penile cancer include:

  • a lump on the skin
  • changes in skin color near the tip or on the shaft
  • sores
  • thickening skin
  • formation of crusty bumps
  • foul-smelling discharge
  • bleeding beneath the foreskin
  • red rash under the foreskin
  • bluish-brown growths

As cancer develops, there may be swelling near the tip of the penis. This sign is especially noticeable in uncircumcised men, as it will become harder to draw the foreskin back.

Cancer often spreads to lymph nodes in the area first, which can cause them to swell.

Below are images of different forms of penile cancer.

Doctors do not understand the exact causes of penile cancer, but they have identified some possible risk factors. These include:

The type of treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer. When a doctor diagnoses penile cancer in the early stages, treatment may involve one or more of the following:

  • laser therapy to cut away the affected area
  • cryotherapy to freeze off affected areas
  • circumcision, in cases where the cancer is in the foreskin
  • Mohs’ surgery, or the removal of the affected layers of skin

If cancer has reached a more advanced stage, a doctor is likely to choose a different treatment method, such as:

  • penectomy, which is surgery to remove part or all of the penis
  • surgery to remove cancer from other sites it spreads to, such as the lymph nodes
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy

Learn more about the different treatments for cancer here.

There is no conclusive way to prevent cancer development. However, a person can reduce their risk of penile cancer by:

  • Vaccination: Getting the HPV vaccine can lower a person’s risk of penile cancer.
  • Genital hygiene: Practicing thorough penile hygiene can reduce the risk of penile cancer. This is particularly important for uncircumcised males.
  • Circumcision: Circumcision prior to adult age can help improve genital hygiene.
  • Screening: Early detection of cancer and associated risk factors can help plan timely treatment courses.
  • Lifestyle choices: Healthful choices can lower a person’s overall cancer risk. Maintaining a moderate weight, not smoking, and eating a balanced diet may help.

According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year relative survival rate for all stages of penile cancer is 65%. However, a person’s outlook varies on the cancer stage at diagnosis.

Cancer stage5-year survival rate

A 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of people still alive 5 years after their diagnosis. Relative survival rates compare the survival of people with a specific disease to those in the general population without the disease.

However, there is a lack of research on the survival rates for penile cancer because the disease is relatively rare. A doctor can help determine an individual’s likelihood of successful treatment and survival.

Early detection leads to the best outcome. The treatment options at the early stages are less invasive and allow for a faster recovery.

Anyone who experiences any signs of penile cancer should speak to a doctor as soon as possible.