What is Penile Cancer?

What is Penile Cancer?

Penile cancer occurs when cancerous cells grow on the shaft or head of the penis, possibly spreading to the inside tissue and other body parts. Penile cancer is rare, only affecting about 1% of males in the United States.

Penile cancer typically starts under the foreskin on uncircumcised individuals or on the head of the penis (the glans). The exact cause of most penile cancers is unknown. However, people with uncircumcised penises, smokers, HIV-positive individuals, or those 55 and older are at an increased risk.

Types of Penile Cancer


Types of penile cancer include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma - 95% of penile cancer diagnoses are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that make up the outer layers of your skin. Tumors usually grow slowly and are generally quite treatable if discovered early.
  • Sarcoma -This form of penile cancer accounts for a minimal number of penile cancer diagnoses. It forms in connective and supportive tissues of the penis, such as blood vessels, fat, cartilage, and muscle. Though rare, these types of tumors can grow rapidly if left untreated.
  • Melanoma -This form of cancer develops in melanocytes, the cells that give the skin its pigment. Melanomas are more commonly found on sun-damaged skin, and though they are not typically found on the penis, it is possible. This type of cancer tends to spread quickly.
  • Basal cell carcinoma - Another type of skin cancer that forms deeper in the skin in the basal cells, which are responsible for producing new cells. This tends to grow slowly and is unlikely to spread to other body parts.

Stages of Penile Cancer


Treatment plans for penile cancer vary depending on the stage of the disease. A biopsy or surgery may be necessary to determine the cancer’s stage. Once the stage of cancer is identified, our team of experts –including urologic oncologists and male reproductive health specialists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, diagnostic and interventional radiologists, pathologists, and fertility preservation specialists--will collaborate to customize your care.

The stages of penile cancer are:

  • Stage 0 - Abnormal cells are detected on the surface of the penis. These cells may become cancerous and begin spreading to other normal tissue nearby.
  • Stage 1 - The cancer is still in an early stage, but has spread to the tissue beneath the skin's surface on the penis
  • Stage 2 - Cancer has spread to connective tissue beneath the skin on the penis and may have spread to lymph nodes or erectile tissue in the glans or shaft
  • Stage 3 - Cancer has spread to local lymph nodes and possibly the urethra
  • Stage 4 - Cancer has spread beyond the tissues of the penis and may be found in lymph nodes in the groin/pelvis, the scrotum, the prostate, or other parts of the body

A lymph node dissection of the groin can also be necessary for high-grade cancers.

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Signs & Symptoms of Penile Cancer


The most common penile cancer symptoms involve changes to the skin on the penis. These can appear on the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis, the penis tip, or the shaft.

Penile cancer symptoms may include:

  • Growths or sores on the glans (head), foreskin, or shaft of the penis
  • Changes in the color of the penis
  • Thickening of the skin on the penis
  • Swelling at the end of the penis
  • Swelling of lymph nodes in the groin
  • Discharge with a strong odor
  • Lump(s) on the penis
  • Bumps, rashes, or sores (especially on/near the glans and foreskin)
  • Unexplained pain or discomfort in the tip or shaft of the penis

Causes & Risk Factors of Penile Cancer

Causes & Risk Factors

Although the exact causes of penile cancer is unknown, several risk factors can increase your risk of developing this type of cancer. Risk factors for penile cancer include:

  • HPV - Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can cause papillomas, or warts-like growths, to form and are linked to various types of cancer, including penile cancer. HPV can be passed during skin-to-skin contact or sexual activity. Uncircumcised men may have a greater risk of contracting and staying infected with HPV.
  • Age 60 years or older - The risk of penile cancer increases with age
  • Smoking/tobacco use - Smoking or using tobacco products introduces harmful chemicals and substances into the body
  • HIV or AIDS - People with HIV or AIDS have a greater risk of developing penile cancer due to weakened immune systems
  • Being uncircumcised - Uncircumcised individuals can have a buildup of smegma, a substance made of dead cells and oily secretions from the skin. If not cleaned regularly or properly, this buildup can cause inflammation and irritation, increasing the risk of developing penile cancer.
  • Having phimosis - Phimosis is a condition that involves the tightening of the foreskin in men who are not circumcised. This can lead to an increased risk of penile cancer due to irritation, inflammation, and difficulty keeping the area clean.
  • Psoriasis treatment - Psoriasis is sometimes treated with a combination of drugs called psoralens and ultraviolet light. This particular treatment has been found to increase the risk of an individual developing penile cancer.
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Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Penile Cancer Care

At NewYork-Presbyterian, our team of experts can provide you with the information you need regarding treatment options available for penile cancer. Contact us today for an appointment with one of our specialists.