Certain characteristics, or penile cancer risk factors, can increase a man’s chances of developing penile cancer at some point in his life. Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that a man will develop penile cancer, but it does mean that he should be especially aware of any unusual changes that occur in the appearance, feel or function of his genitals.
The primary risk factors for cancers of the penis include:
Having the human papilloma virus (HPV) – Men who contract HPV from a sexual partner are more likely to develop penile cancer than men who do not carry this infection. Some studies show that nearly half of all men with penile cancer have evidence of HPV. Researchers have also associated several other factors that are related to high HPV risk (e.g., having a high number of sexual partners and not using condoms) with an elevated risk of penile cancer, although a direct correlation has not been confirmed.
Not being circumcised – Men who are circumcised are less likely to develop penile cancer than those who are not. A man’s age at the time of circumcision is also a possible risk factor; men who are circumcised during puberty or adolescence (rather than at birth) have slightly higher penile cancer incidence rates.
Having phimosis – Men who are not circumcised are at risk for this condition, in which the foreskin can tighten around the tip of the penis so that it does not fully retract. This can increase the likelihood of dead skin cells and other secretions (known as smegma) beneath the foreskin.
Smoking – Men who smoke have a higher risk of several different cancers, including cancers of the penis. This is partially due to the high concentrations of carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances, in tobacco products, and partially due to the fact that the disease-fighting cells in the penis (Langerhans cells) are typically less effective in smokers.
Age – Most penile cancers are diagnosed in men 60 years of age or older. Very rarely are penile cancers diagnosed in men 40 years of age or younger.
How do you prevent penile cancer?
Just as the precise cause of cancer is unknown, there is no known way to prevent cancer. However, since research has made us aware of the factors that increase risk of penile cancer developing, steps can be taken to combat some of those risk factors. For instance, regular, thorough cleaning under the foreskin can help lower penile cancer risk. Lifestyle choices such as not smoking and avoiding sexual practices that could lead to HPV would also be good practices.
Moffitt Cancer Center’s expert oncologists can provide more information about penile cancer risk factors and help you assess your own personal risk level. Referrals are not required; call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online to request an appointment.