Statistics, Causes, and Symptoms of Penis Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1,530 new cases of penile cancer are diagnosed each year, and about 280 men will die of penile cancer in 2006. Penile, or penis cancer, occurs in about 1 in 100,000 men in the United States.

Doctor using digital tablet to talk to an older adult man
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Although penis cancer is very rare in North America and Europe, it is much more common in some parts of Africa and South America, where it accounts for up to 10% of cancers in men.


Cancer of the penis (penile cancer) is a malignant growth of cells in the tissue and/or external area of the penis. Penis cancer is a very rare disease that is generally an aggressive form of cancer that has a tendency to spread.


If penile cancer has been diagnosed and treated early, then the 5-year survival rate is 65%, so it is important to seek medical attention quickly. Elderly men are the most likely to suffer from this form of cancer.


The cause of penis cancer is unknown, but there is a higher incidence of penile cancer in uncircumcised men, and in men who do not keep the area under the foreskin clean. The presence of smegma, the cheese-like secretion under the foreskin, appears to increase the risk.


The most common symptom is a tender spot, wart-like lump or opens sore, usually painless, that originates on the tip of the penis. Pain and bleeding usually only occur if the cancer is advanced. Penile cancer that is not treated can spread to the lymph nodes of the groin and on to other parts of the body. Malignant cells and cancer in the lymph nodes are abnormal, often painless, swellings.


Diagnosis of penis cancer is made by the surgical removal and biopsy of the lump. This excludes other diseases such as penile warts or syphilis.


There are 4 stages of cancer of the penis:

  • Stage 1 penis cancer. Malignant cells are found only on the surface of the penis
  • Stage 2 penis cancer. Malignant cells are found on the surface, tissues beneath the surface and in the shaft of the penis.
  • Stage 3 penis cancer. Malignant cells have spread to the lymph nodes in the groin.
  • Stage 4 penis cancer. May represent either a large T4 tumor that invades into adjacent structures (scrotum, prostate, pubic bones); or there is palpable fixed inguinal adenopathy (swollen lymph nodes in the groin); or the cancer has spread to the pelvic lymph nodes; or the cancer has spread at a distance.


Treatments offered for penis cancer will depend on the stage cancer has reached. Doctors specializing in cancer (oncologists) or the genital and urinary system, known as urologists are the best and most informed doctors to consult. They will then be able to advise how to proceed with treatment and who are the best doctors in this field of medicine.

Seeking early treatment for penis cancer is extremely important, putting off going to the doctor can cost your life.

Treatments for penile cancer include:


Removal of the cancer is the most common treatment. If the cancer is small and localized to the tip, then a partial penectomy can be performed under a general anesthetic. This operation will allow you to maintain the ability to urinate normally and function sexually.

Microsurgery may be possible and this helps to remove the smallest amount of cancerous and minimal amounts of normal tissue to preserve as much of the organ as possible. In some cases, the penis that remains can be enlarged surgically.If the cancer is more advanced then a total penectomy is the option. A new urethral opening is created in the groin to allow for urination. Urination is controlled via a 2on-off valve.


A course of radiotherapy may be used in conjunction with surgical removal of cancer. This treatment can be done on an outpatient basis and is usually painless. It can cause some side effects such as sensitivity and irritation of the skin, loss of appetite, fatigue, rectal bleeding or injury, inflammation of the bladder, blood in the urine. The course of treatment using an external beam (rather like an X-ray machine) usually lasts 5 days a week for 6 to 8 weeks.


Chemotherapy may be used in conjuncture with surgery either intravenously, orally or in the form of a cream. The first course of the 'chemo' is usually started in a hospital to monitor any side effects, it can then be given on an out-patient basis. There are a number of unpleasant side effects, for example, nausea and vomiting, hair loss and infertility (this can be temporary).


Sex lives will be changed. It is important to remind yourself that a successful sex life need not depend on solely on penile stimulation and that even if adapting to it is very difficult, the alternative is less attractive. Support groups are available and sometimes it can be very helpful after the initial shock. Seeking the advice of those who have experienced makes you feel less isolated. The medical team responsible for your treatment will be able to answer your queries and that can put your mind at rest to a degree.

The American Cancer Society has an excellent website on sexuality and cancer that can give you an informed insight into common difficulties. If you and your partner can work through the issues together it will help.

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