Penile cancer is a rare malignancy that accounts for fewer than 1% of cancer cases per year. Since it most commonly originates in the skin cells, it is known as a type of skin cancer. Around 95% of penile cancer is squamous cell carcinoma that forms on the foreskin (in uncircumcised men) or on the glans. This type of penile cancer grows slowly and, when found at an early stage, often has a favorable outcome. The other types of penile cancer are melanomas, basal cell carcinomas, adenocarcinomas and sarcomas. Of all the types, melanoma is the most aggressive form of penile cancer.
Most changes to a man’s penis are not symptoms of penile cancer, but rather symptoms of a less serious condition, such as a sexually transmitted infection. However, it’s important for a man to report any unusual changes in the appearance or feel of his penis to a physician, who can help diagnose and treat the underlying cause.
What are the early signs of penile cancer?
Most penile cancers start in the skin, so the warning signs are more readily apparent than with other cancers. Additionally, men are already advised to perform monthly testicular self-exams, and many find it convenient to look for any changes on or around the penis at the same time. Potential penile cancer symptoms that should immediately be discussed with a physician include:
- Lumps, rashes, crusty bumps or sores on the penis
- Changes in the color or texture of the foreskin, head or shaft
- Swelling and/or persistent discharge beneath the foreskin
- Blood or other fluids being secreted from the tip of the penis
- Unexplained pain during urination or sexual intercourse
- Swollen lymph nodes in the groin
- Fatigue, weight loss or abdominal pain (in the case of advanced, late-stage penile cancer)
In the unlikely event that these symptoms are caused by penile cancer, early diagnosis can greatly increase a man’s treatment options. Early-stage penile cancers have a favorable survival rate, but late-stage penile cancers can be more difficult to treat and may require more aggressive treatments. As a result, it’s important for a man to know what is outside the range of normal for his own body, and to not put off making an appointment with a physician if abnormal changes occur.
Risk factors for penile cancer
A risk factor is a characteristic that can increase one’s chances for developing a certain condition, but it does not mean that someone will necessarily develop the condition. However, it can be useful to understand the risk factors for penile cancer so that men who may be more predisposed to it can know what to look for in terms of changes to their genitals and report anything unusual to their physician right away. The risk factors include:
- Having the human papillomavirus (HPV) – Nearly half of all men with penile cancer have HPV.
- Being uncircumcised – Circumcised men are less likely to get penile cancer, especially men who were circumcised at birth.
- Smoking – Men who smoke are at greater risk for several types of cancer, including penile cancer.
- Having phimosis – This condition occurs primarily in uncircumcised men and is characterized by the foreskin being too tight to be retracted. Since the foreskin cannot be pulled back to be cleaned, bacteria, dead skin cells and secretions can build up, causing inflammation that leads to penile cancer.
- Age – Penile cancer is more prevalent in men aged 60 and older.
How is penile cancer diagnosed?
After completing a physical exam and learning more about the symptoms a patient is experiencing, a physician will likely order tests to rule out a more common condition, such as a sexually transmitted infection. If those tests are negative, the physician may order further testing, such as:
- A biopsy, such as a incisional, excisional or lymph node biopsy
- A computed tomography (CT) scan
- A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- An ultrasound
- A chest X-ray
If these tests confirm a penile cancer diagnosis, the next step will be to stage the cancer to help inform the treatment plan.
Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to penile cancer treatment
Men who are experiencing symptoms of penile cancer can request an appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center. Our Urologic Oncology Program comprises a wide range of medical specialists, including oncologists, radiation therapists, surgeons, reproductive health specialists and social workers who focus exclusively on penile cancer cases. Together, they diagnose patients with penile cancer using advanced technologies and develop comprehensive, individualized treatment plans. Penile cancer is often treated with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. At Moffitt Cancer Center, we also have a robust clinical trials program, which has earned us the status of a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.
If you’re experiencing penile cancer symptoms and would like to discuss them with one of our oncologists, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. Florida’s top cancer hospital is changing the model, and we provide our patients with cancer expertise within one day.