Penile cancer: what we all need to know

Written by: Mr Nigel Parr
Published: | Updated: 25/10/2019
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

Penile cancer is type of cancer that usually appears on the skin of the penis or inside the penis. It’s a rare condition with around 800 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK. Unlike testicular cancer, penile cancer isn’t talked about often, partly due to its sensitive nature and the rarity of the condition. Mr Nigel Parr, a leading urologist, gives us an insight into what men should be watching out for in order to spot the signs and symptoms early.


Couple hugging eachother


Who does it affect?

The risk of penile cancer tends to go up with age. The average age of a man diagnosed with penile cancer is around 60. Of course, this depends on every individual case and there are certain risk factors that make a man more likely to develop penile cancer. These include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – for most men, HPV infection clears on its own. For some, it doesn’t, and unfortunately can become chronic. Over time, this infection can cause penile cancer.
  • Circumcision – men who are not circumcised have a slightly higher chance of developing penile cancer. It is not entirely clear why, but it is believed that circumcised men can’t develop phimosis, neither can they develop smegma. Both of those can contribute to the development of penile cancer.
  • Smoking – tobacco use is widely known to cause many cancers and penile cancer is no exception. The chemicals in tobacco travel through the body and can cause cancer in many areas.
  • Phismosis – this is a condition when the foreskin is difficult to draw back. Having this condition can increase your risk of developing infections. Having repeated infections in the same area are linked to developing penile cancer.


What signs and symptoms should I watch out for?

It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of penile cancer. The condition may present itself in a number of ways. They can include:

  • a red rash on the shaft, foreskin or glans (tip of penis)
  • discharge or bleeding from the penis
  • a growth or sore that doesn’t clear up
  • a lump beneath the foreskin
  • thickening of the skin of the penis making it hard to pull the foreskin back


When should I seek medical advice?

If you notice any of these you should see your doctor as soon as you can. Unfortunately, many men simply hope that the abnormality will go away or are too embarrassed to come forward, delaying the diagnosis.


It’s important to note that a lot of the symptoms for penile cancer are also common symptoms of other conditions, so it doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer. Inflammation and infection of the foreskin are common problems that men have throughout their life. So your GP may initially prescribe a cream for the abnormality, but if the red area persists after six weeks then you are often referred onwards to a consultant urologist to investigate more.


What sort of specialist should I see?

urologist, who is a doctor that specialises in conditions that affect the urinary system and genitals, may take a biopsy to confirm or exclude cancer. They may also refer you directly to a team that specialise in penile cancer where blood tests, medical history checks and other tests may be performed.


What treatment may I receive?

When diagnosed at an early stage, penile cancer can be treated with chemotherapy creams, a simple excision of the affected area or a skin graft. If the affected area is more advanced, more extensive surgery is often required.


During surgery, the cancerous cells and possibly the surrounding tissue will be removed. The surgeon will try to remove as little tissue as possible to preserve the penis. If necessary, muscle and skin can be taken from other parts of the body and added to the penis. Sometimes, surgery to the lymph nodes in the groin may have to be carried out and if the cancer has spread to them too, they may be removed. If the cancer is at a much later stage, then additional treatment may be needed such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.


With more awareness and knowledge of the symptoms of penile cancer, more men will be able to get an early diagnosis, fast treatment and have a speedy recovery. Better yet, more men might be able to avoid having to have surgery at all. The take home message is therefore clear - if you notice an abnormality on your penis then don’t delay and arrange to see your GP promptly.


If you feel like you might have some of the symptoms or need to be transferred to an urologist for a consultation, visit Mr Nigel Parr’s profile to book an appointment.

By Mr Nigel Parr

Mr Nigel Parr is a leading consultant urologist and the first to be appointed to Wirral University Teaching Hospital. He has wide reaching experience across the field of urology, but current particular interests relate to prostate, bladder and penile cancer, urinary tract infections and inflammation, infertility and urinary tract stones. He runs a highly respected penile cancer service and frequently receives referrals from outside the region.

Mr Parr obtained his medical qualification from the University of Liverpool. After being awarded a Doctorate in Medicine, he moved to Edinburgh to complete his training and became a lecturer in urology. As consultant urologist at Wirral University Teaching Hospital, Mr Parr introduced a number of new treatments to Merseyside and the North West. He has published more than 70 papers in scientific journals, and either he or his trainees have been awarded 15 research prizes at local, national, and international meetings including the AUA, EAU, BAUS and the Endourology Society.

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