Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that impacts the penis and surrounding genital area. While researchers are unsure of the exact cause, evidence notes that multiple risk factors can increase a person’s risk of developing this cancer.

Penile cancer is a rare condition that impacts less than 1 in every 100,000 males in the United States annually. It occurs when harmful cells begin growing in the skin and tissues of the penis.

Doctors can define penile cancer by the stage of its progression. When a person receives treatment in the early stages of penile cancer, the condition is often curable.

In this article, we will discuss the risk factors, potential causes, and prevention tips for penile cancer.

A person talking to a doctor-1.Share on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop penile cancer include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Evidence suggests that most penile cancers occur due to HPV infections. As such, doctors may refer to penile cancer as an HPV-associated cancer.
  • Being uncircumcised: Some evidence suggests that penile cancer is more common in people without a circumcision. This may be due to irritation that can occur in a person with a foreskin.
  • Phimosis and smegma: Phimosis describes a condition when the foreskin becomes tight. Smegma is a thick substance that can collect under the foreskin. Both of these conditions may result in irritation and inflammation of the penis, which can increase the risk of penile cancer.
  • Smoking: Evidence notes that people who smoke are at a higher risk of several cancers, including those that affect the penis. This is due to the high concentrations of carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances, that are present in tobacco products.
  • UV light treatment for psoriasis: Psoriasis is a skin condition that people can treat by using light therapy. However, over time, this treatment can result in premature aging of skin cells. As such, this can increase the risk of certain cancers, including those that affect the penis.
  • Older age: The risk of penile cancer increases with age. Most cases of penile cancer occur in people 60 years of age or older.
  • HIV/AIDS: Having a health condition that weakens the immune system, such as AIDS, increases the risk of penile cancer. This is because the person’s immune system is less likely to be able to fight off cancer. Additionally, those living with HIV are more likely to smoke and have an HPV infection.

Penile cancer occurs when cancerous cells form in the tissues of the penis. At present, researchers are unsure of the exact cause of penile cancer. However, factors such as HPV infections and smoking likely have cancer-causing effects.

For example, cells can typically control themselves by producing substances known as tumor suppressors. These help to prevent cells from growing too fast and becoming cancers.

However, certain types of HPV can produce proteins that block the way tumor suppressors work. This allows cells to start growing out of control, which increases the risk of them becoming cancerous.

Additionally, tobacco use can cause cancer-causing chemicals to spread throughout the body and damage the DNA inside cells, including the cells of the penis. When DNA damage occurs, it can affect cell growth and potentially lead to cancer.

In most cases, preventing penile cancer involves avoiding the above risk factors. As many of the risk factors are modifiable, this means people can make lifestyle changes to help reduce their risk. Prevention strategies can include:

  • Circumcision: Removing the foreskin may help to reduce the risk of penile cancer by making it easier to keep the penis clean.
  • Genital hygiene: Practicing good genital hygiene by pulling back the foreskin and cleaning under it can help protect against penile cancer.
  • Routinely checking for skin changes: Certain changes to the skin of the penis, such as warts, sores, or color changes, can indicate penile cancer. If a person notices these changes, they should see a healthcare professional.
  • Practicing safer sex: By practicing safer sex strategies, such as using a condom, a person can reduce their risk of acquiring HPV or HIV.
  • Vaccination against HPV: Receiving this vaccination provides protection against an HPV infection.
  • Quitting smoking: As tobacco use can increase the risk of many different types of cancer, including penile cancer, it is advisable for a person to quit.

Typically, the most noticeable symptoms of penile cancer include skin changes, swelling, and lumps under the skin in the groin area. Often, the first sign of penile cancer is a change in the skin of the penis. This may occur on the head, foreskin, or shaft of the penis.

Symptoms of penile cancer include:

  • an area of skin becoming thicker or changing color
  • a sore on the penis that may bleed
  • a rash on the penis
  • a lump on the penis
  • crusty bumps on the penis
  • growths on the penis
  • smelly discharge under the foreskin
  • swelling

If a person notices any symptoms such as sores, discharge, or bleeding, it is advisable that they contact their doctor.

Having these symptoms does not necessarily indicate penile cancer and is more likely to relate to other conditions. However, it is sensible to visit a doctor, so they can diagnose the cause and suggest appropriate treatment.

If a person has penile cancer, the sooner they receive a diagnosis, the sooner they can start treatment. The earlier a person receives treatment, the more likely it is to be effective.

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the tissue of the penis. Currently, health experts are unsure of the exact cause, but note many potential risk factors for the condition.

These include having an HPV infection, not cleaning the penis, and having a condition that negatively impacts the immune system, such as AIDS.