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Frequently Asked Questions About Penile Cancer

Q: What is the penis?

A: The penis is part of the external male genitalia.

Illustration of  the anatomy of the male reproductive tract
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It contains many types of tissue, such as skin, nerves, and blood vessels. The urethra is inside the penis. This is the tube through which urine and semen leave the body. The tip of the penis is called the glans. The foreskin covers the glans. Every male has a foreskin at birth. Circumcision is the removal of a part or the entire foreskin on the penis at birth or later on in life.

Q: What is penile cancer?

A: Penile cancer is a kind of cancer that begins in the cells of the penile tissue. It is very rarely found in the United States. Although there are different types of penile cancer, 95 percent are squamous cell carcinoma. This means the cancer begins in the flat skin cells of the penis called squamous cells. Most squamous cell penile cancers begin on the foreskin or on the glans. Squamous cell penile cancer is slow-growing and, when found in its early stages, can be cured.

Q: Can penile cancer be prevented?

A: Although there is no definite way to prevent penile cancer, there are some risk factors a man can avoid. In the past, it was thought that circumcision as an adult could help prevent penile cancer. This is not true. Only circumcision done as an infant or young child appears to lower the risk of penile cancer. Here are some actual ways to help prevent penile cancer:

  • Avoid HPV infection by practicing safe sex.

  • Quit smoking, or never start.

  • Practice good personal hygiene habits, especially if you are uncircumcised.

Q: What are the symptoms of penile cancer?

A: Many men will have symptoms in the early stages of penile cancer. The most common symptoms are changes in color or thickness of the skin, unusual discharge, ulcer or sore, and swelling at the end of the penis. A man with any skin changes or sores around the penis should see a doctor.

Q: How is penile cancer diagnosed?

A: Doctors will examine your penis, testicles, groin, and abdomen. If they see anything unusual they will take a sample of tissue called a biopsy. From this biopsy they will determine whether or not you have penile cancer.

Q: How is penile cancer treated?

A: Men may have one or more of these treatments for penile cancer:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

  • Immune, complementary, or alternative therapy 

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion after a diagnosis of penile cancer?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. These are some of the many reasons to get one:

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision

  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer

  • Having several options for how to treat the cancer

  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

Many men have a hard time deciding which penile cancer treatment to have. It may help to have a second doctor review the diagnosis and treatment options before starting treatment. It is important to remember that in most cases, a short delay in treatment will not lower the chance that it will work. Some health insurance companies even require that a person with cancer seek a second opinion, and many other companies will pay for a second opinion if asked.

Q: How can someone get a second opinion?

A: There are many ways to find a doctor who can give a second opinion. Here are some examples:

  • Call your primary doctor. Your primary doctor may be able to recommend a doctor who specializes in cancer.

  • Call the Cancer Information Service. Call 800-4-CANCER. This service tells callers about treatment facilities, cancer centers, and other treatment programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • See other resources. People with cancer can get the names of doctors using local medical societies, nearby hospitals or medical schools, local cancer advocacy groups, or other men who have had penile cancer.

Q: How will penile cancer affect a man’s sexuality?

A: If a man diagnosed with penile cancer has a partial or total penectomy (surgery to remove the penis), his health care team will discuss the procedure before surgery. The side effects of this surgery can be difficult to deal with. It may be helpful for a man to seek counseling to deal with the loss of part or all of the penis. Often, doctors can leave enough of the penis intact so that the man can still urinate as he did before and function sexually. However, the whole penis may need to be removed to treat some cancers. 

Q: What are clinical trials?

A: Clinical trials are studies of new kinds of cancer treatments. Doctors conduct clinical trials to learn how well new treatments work and to learn what the side effects may be. If the new treatments look promising, they are then compared to the current treatments to see if they work better or have fewer side effects. People who participate in clinical trials may benefit from access to new treatments before the FDA approves them. Participants also help future cancer patients and further our understanding of cancer.