Skip to nav Skip to content

Penile cancer is a slow-growing tumor that develops in the penis, a male organ used for reproduction and urination. Usually, the cancer arises in the flat skin (squamous) cells of the foreskin or head (glans), although it can occur anywhere in the penis.

Symptoms of penile cancer can include skin changes, such as a thickening, color change or rash, as well as a lump, ulcer or sore that does not heal. In some cases, there may be a foul-smelling discharge or bleeding from the penis. Other signs can include swelling at the end of the penis, especially if the foreskin is tight and difficult to pull back.

Penile cancer is relatively uncommon, especially in the United States and other developed countries, where it constitutes only a small percentage of male cancers. Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, which can range from a simple excision of the tumor to a partial or total penectomy, depending on the stage and location of the cancer. Other options may include radiation therapy or chemotherapy, which may be considered if the tumor has spread.

Older male patient getting a medical exam to test for cancer

What causes penile cancer?

Penile cancer primarily develops when cells in the penis undergo harmful DNA changes. The genetic mutations disrupt the normally regulated cellular growth cycle, causing the cells to multiply rapidly and live longer than healthy cells. Excess cells then build up, bind together and form a tumor in the penis. The exact mechanisms behind the cellular changes that lead to penile cancer are not fully understood.

What are the risk factors for penile cancer?

Penile cancer is not genetic. However, scientists have identified several characteristics, behaviors and exposures that can increase the risk. While some of these factors can be controlled, others cannot.

Penile cancer risk factors that can be controlled

By making healthy lifestyle changes, it may be possible to control certain penile cancer risk factors, such as:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, is a significant risk factor for penile cancer. HPV produces E6 and E7 proteins, which can interfere with the function of tumor suppressor genes in healthy cells in the penis.
  • Smoking – Tobacco use is a well-established risk factor for many types of cancer, including penile cancer.
  • Poor hygiene – Skin cells, oils, sweat and other fluids (smegma) can build up under the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis, which can cause irritation and increase the risk of penile cancer.

Penile cancer risk factors that cannot be managed

Certain penile cancer risk factors cannot be controlled, such as:

  • Advanced age – Penile cancer risk increases with age, and most cases are diagnosed after age 60.
  • Phimosis – Common in uncircumcised men, phimosis occurs when the opening of the foreskin is constricted and cannot be drawn back over the tip of the penis, allowing smegma to build up and increasing the risk of penile cancer.
  • Immunosuppression – A weakened immune system due to a health condition, such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), or medical treatment, such as medication to prevent organ rejection after a transplant, can increase the risk of penile cancer.
Start here to schedule an appointment with a Moffitt provider.
Request an Appointment

Can penile cancer be prevented?

Although penile cancer cannot be prevented, it is possible to reduce the risk by managing the risk factors that are known to be controllable. Examples include:

  • Reducing the risk of HPV infection – By practicing safe sex and getting an HPV vaccine, it may be possible to reduce the risk of both HPV infection and penile cancer.
  • Practicing good hygiene – Regular, thorough cleaning under the foreskin can help eliminate smegma, minimize irritation and reduce the risk of penile cancer.
  • Avoiding tobacco use – Scientific evidence confirms that the risk of many types of cancer, including penile cancer, decreases with smoking cessation at any age.
  • Losing weight if necessary – Maintaining a healthy body weight can promote overall well-being and help protect against certain cancers, including penile cancer.

Additionally, regular medical check-ups and early intervention can aid in managing both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors effectively.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

As one of the largest cancer centers in the nation based on patient volume, Moffitt has a multispecialty team with extensive experience in diagnosing and treating many types of cancer, including penile cancer. Nationally recognized for our research breakthroughs, we have a robust portfolio of clinical trials, allowing our patients can be among the first to benefit from promising new treatments that are not yet widely available.

If you would like to learn more about penile cancer causes and risk factors, you can request an appointment with a specialist in Moffitt’s renowned Urologic Oncology Program by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.

Causes and Risk Factors