Urethral cancer affects the urethra, which is the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body. It serves to remove urine from the body.

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Various treatments are available for urethral cancer, with the best option depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors, such as the person’s age. The side effects of these treatments and the outlook for people with this disease vary among individuals.

In this article, we provide more information about urethral cancer and what someone with this condition can expect.

Urethral cancer is a rare form of urological cancer that is responsible for less than 1% of all cases of cancer of the genital or urinary organs. Urological cancers include those that affect the urinary tracts of all sexes and the reproductive organs of males.

Urethral cancer affects males and females differently, though the research findings on this are conflicting. According to the National Cancer Institute, this type of cancer affected 4.3 of every million males and 1.5 of every million females between 1973 and 2002. The Urology Care Foundation also state that the cancer affects more males than females.

However, both Beaumont Health and UCLA Health state that the cancer affects more females than males.

According to a recent study, survival rates of urethral cancer are based largely on the age of the person and stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. As with most cancers, early detection plays an important part in treatment and survival.

A person may not notice symptoms in the early stages of the cancer. According to the Urology Care Foundation, a person may start to notice symptoms once the cancer has grown larger.

The symptoms may include:

  • a noticeable growth or lump on the urethra
  • pain during urination
  • blood in the urine
  • trouble emptying the bladder

Some people may experience additional symptoms, including:

  • urinary incontinence
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the groin
  • bleeding or discharge from the urethra
  • frequent urge to urinate or frequent urination
  • a growth on the penis or bulging along the underside of the penis

The Urology Care Foundation state that a female’s urethra is about 1.5 inches long. It sits near the outside of the front of the vagina, within the labia.

According to recent research, the treatment goal for females with urethral cancer is to remove the tumor while maintaining as much of the urethra as possible for urination.

As the female urethra is short, there is a high risk of urinary incontinence — the loss of bladder control — after the removal of any primary urethral tumor.

A male’s urethra is about 8 inches in length. It runs from the bladder, through the center of the prostate, and along the shaft of the penis.

Researchers note that the goals for treating males with urethral cancer include removing the tumor, as well as preserving the function of the penis.

UCLA Health state that urethral cancer is most common in people over the age of 60 years. Beaumont Health also indicate age as a risk factor for developing urethral cancer, with people over the age of 60 years most at risk.

While it is not clear at exactly what age urethral cancer risk peaks, the greatest risk is likely somewhere between the ages of 60 and 75 years.

The survival rates for urethral cancer remain unclear. However, in some cases, urethral cancer can be fatal. A person’s outlook depends on various factors, such as:

  • size of the tumor
  • stage of cancer
  • location
  • how widespread the cancer is
  • overall health of the person — for example, the presence of other diseases

People with more advanced stages of cancer and cancers that spread to other parts of the body are generally less likely to have a good outlook.

There are several potential treatments for urethral cancer. Some common treatments include:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • surgery
  • surveillance

A doctor may choose surveillance if the tumor is not causing any issues. However, they typically only consider this approach for people who are older or have other competing health issues.

A person and their doctor often choose to treat the cancer after diagnosis. The Urology Care Foundation note that surgery is the most common treatment option.

The invasiveness of the surgery depends on the location of the cancer. For superficial tumors that have not spread, a doctor may perform a cystoscopy to remove the tumor from the urethra.

For invasive tumors, the location will help determine the type of surgery. There are two main locations: anterior tumors and posterior tumors.

Anterior tumors are located closer to the outside of the body and generally require minimal surgery. The position of posterior tumors is closer to the bladder, and they generally need more invasive surgery.

Invasive surgery for urethral cancer may involve removing part or all of the urethra or parts of the genitals.

Depending on the extent of the surgery for the cancer, a person may need reconstructive surgery. This surgery may involve reconstructing the genitals or creating a new way for the body to release urine.

According to a recent review of studies, the 5-year survival rate of urethral cancer is 46%, and the 10-year survival rate is 31%. However, the overall survival rate of urethral cancer varies greatly among studies.

An individual’s outlook will depend on their age and overall health, as well as the stage of the cancer and how it responds to treatment. A person with urethral cancer can discuss their case with a doctor to get a better understanding of their likely life expectancy.

Urethral cancer is a rare cancer that affects the urethra, a tube that allows urine to exit the body. Some estimates suggest that urethral cancer has a 31% survival rate at 10 years.

A doctor may discuss several treatment options with a person, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Various factors, including the person’s age and the stage of the cancer, will determine what the best treatment is for them.