Around 400 new cases of penile cancer are diagnosed every year in Britain, which is very low in contrast to other forms of cancer such as lung or prostate cancer. The disease most commonly affects men over the age of 50 and may occur within the penis itself or just within the skin of the penis.
Being told you have penile cancer can be devastating. As with most diseases, the earlier you notice and diagnose the problem the better. Below you will find some information on the different forms of penile cancer along with their potential signs, symptoms and methods of treatment.
Types of Penile Cancer
The type of penile cancer depends on the type of cell that the cancer has developed from. The most common include:
Squamous Cell Penile Cancer
Cancer that forms in the cells along the exterior of the penis.
Cancer that forms in the glandular cells of the penis.
Carcinoma in Situ (CIS)
Only cells within the skin of the penis are affected, meaning it has not spread any deeper into the tissue.
Melanoma of the Penis
Signs & Symptoms of Penile Cancer
Cancer that develops in skin cells that provide our skin with colour.
Some of the earliest signs of penile cancer include a change in skin colour or an abnormal growth/sore that doesn’t go away within 3-4 weeks. It’s important to note that there can be lots of reasons for an abnormal growth or change in skin colour, and the vast majority of them are non-cancer related. Nevertheless, you can never be too careful, so it is important to seek medical advice if these signs do not go away in 3-4 weeks.
Other, more serious symptoms of penile cancer include:
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Thickening of the skin
- Inability or difficulty drawing back the foreskin
Again, all of these things can occur due to other causes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. But it is still important that you seek medical advice if you experience these symptoms nonetheless. If a diagnoses is delayed, it may reduce the chances of successful treatment.
Your GP will conduct a medical examination of your penis and ask you to explain your symptoms in full detail.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have published guidelines to help GPs better understand the symptoms of penile cancer. This allows them to make referrals for appropriate tests and medical procedures quickly. The guidelines are also available for public consumption, so those who are worried about suspected penile cancer can find out if they should be referred for further tests or treatment.
If it is suspected, you may be referred to a specialist, more often than not a urologist (specialist in conditions that affect the urinary system/genitals). To confirm a diagnosis of penile cancer, a biopsy may be required. This involves removing a small tissue sample and examining it under a microscope. Patients may also have an MRI scan and a CT scan to ensure the cancer hasn’t spread.
Causes of Penile Cancer
As with all other forms of cancer, the exact cause is still unknown. What we do know, however, is that there are certain risk factors that may increase your chances of obtaining penile cancer. Individuals who carry the human papilloma virus (HPV) are thought to be more at risk of penile cancer, as are men over the age of 50. Smoking can also increase the chances due to the amount of cancer-inducing chemicals found in tobacco. Cancer Research UK has lots of information on the risks and causes of penile cancer.
Treatment for Penile Cancer
The course of treatment will depend on two fundamental elements – size and the rate at which the cancer is expanding. If only the skin cells of the penis are affected, then something as simple as using a chemotherapy cream may be administered. Alternatively, a patient may have laser surgery to remove the skin’s affected area.
Penile cancer can spread to other parts of the body through a man’s lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread, the method of treatment can become a little more complicated. Sometimes, a patient may have to undergo further surgery to remove the lymph nodes entirely.
Later-stage penile cancer treatment methods include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Penile Cancer Surgery
Surgery involves removing cancerous cells and some of the surrounding tissue if necessary. If there are any physical changes made to the penis as a result of the operation, these can often be corrected or reconstructed with reconstructive surgery.
This often involves taking skin and tissue from another part of the body (usually the buttocks) to recreate a fully functioning penis. However, with early diagnosis and modern clinical techniques, this isn’t usually required.
Penile Cancer Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat cancer. There are numerous different types of chemotherapy drugs and almost all of them provide unpleasant side-effects. This includes hair loss, nausea, drowsiness, lack of appetite and weight loss. The severity of the side-effects will depend on the type of drug you take and how often you must take it.
Penile Cancer Radiotherapy
Radiotherapy uses high energy waves to treat penile cancer. This is not as common as surgery but may be the preferred option for those who do not want to have an operation. Radiotherapy may also be a possibility post-surgery, if there is a risk that cancer cells are left in the groin area or there is a high risk of them returning in the lymph nodes. Again, there are some unpleasant side-effects involved; including skin reactions, hair loss, fatigue and slight pains.
Remember the Three C’s
As mentioned at the start, penile cancer is very rare, especially in men under the age of 50. However, it is still very important that you check regularly for early signs or any symptoms.
Men should always remember to:
- CHECK regularly around the penis are and testicles.
- Be CAUTIOUS and have anything abnormal checked out.
- Keep CALM if you do notice something abnormal, it does not automatically mean cancer.
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