Spotlight on Penile Cancer

Spotlight on Penile Cancer

The penis is the external genital organ. It is composed of three chambers of spongy tissue that contain smooth muscle and many blood vessels and nerves. The corpora cavernosa makes up two of the chambers located on both sides of the upper part of the penis. The corpus spongiosum is located below the corpora cavernosa and surrounds the urethra. The urethra is the tube through which semen and urine exit the body at an opening called the meatus.

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer and occurs on the foreskin, on the skin of the penile shaft, or the glans (head) of the penis. It occurs mostly in uncircumcised people (who still have foreskin around the head of the penis). Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin and may reduce the risk of penile cancer.

In 2023, an estimated 174 new cases of penile cancer were diagnosed. In 2022, the estimated age-standardised incidence rate of penile cancer was 1.2 cases per 100,000 people. In 2014 – 2018, on average, 74.5% diagnosed with penile cancer survived 5 years after diagnosis. 

People with penile cancer may experience a variety of symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • a growth or sore on the head of the penis (the glans), the foreskin or on the shaft of the penis that doesn’t heal in a couple of weeks
  • bleeding from the penis or under the foreskin
  • a hard lump on or under the foreskin
  • an odorous discharge under the foreskin
  • changes in the colour of the skin on the penis or foreskin
  • thickening of the skin on the penis or foreskin that makes it hard to pull back the foreskin
    pain in the shaft or tip of the penis
  • swelling at the tip of the penis
  • a rash on the penis or a constant red patch of skin that does not resolve
  • lumps in the groin due to swollen lymph nodes.

These and other symptoms may be caused by penile cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms.

Check with your doctor if you have any of theses problems.

  • Infection with human papilloma virus is a risk factor for cancer of the penis. Some other conditions that affect the appearance of the skin of the penis can lead to cancer, so it’s important to see your doctor if you notice white, red or scaly patches.

    Other risk factors for penile cancer include:

    • Being age 60 or older
    • Having phimosis (a condition in which the foreskin of the penis cannot be pulled back over the glans)
    • Having poor personal hygiene
    • Having many sexual partners
    • Using tobacco products

Who treats penile cancer?

Based on your treatment options, you might have different doctors of various specialties on your treatment team. These doctors could include:

  • urologist: a surgeon who specialises in diseases of the male genitals and urinary tract
  • radiation oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
  • medical oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat cancer
  • A psychologist trained in sex therapy: a specialist who can help patients and their partners discuss their feelings around intimacy and sexual well-being

How is penile cancer treated?

Surgery is the main treatment for most men with penile cancers, but sometimes radiation therapy may be used, either instead of or in addition to surgery. Other local treatments might also be used for early-stage cancer. Chemotherapy may be given for some larger tumours or if the cancer has spread.

As well as medical treatment for penile cancer it is also important to adjust to living with the diagnosis. A specialist nurse, psychologist, social worker, a GP and support groups can all help and provide ways of coping.

Progress in treating penile cancer has been hindered by its rarity so it is difficult to recruit enough patients to penile cancer clinical trials.

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to receive state-of-the art cancer treatment, management and care that is not yet available to the wider public. Clinical trials are also the best way for a multidisciplinary team to learn better methods to treat this rare form of cancer.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor or contact ANZUP.