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What are the risk factors?

The cause of penile cancer is not known in most cases. However, there are several risk factors:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – This common group of viruses are spread through sexual contact. Some types of HPV increase the risk of certain cancers. Most people with HPV do not develop cancer but HPV infection is found in about half of all penile cancers. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts, which increase the risk of developing penile cancer.
  • not being circumcised – Penile cancer is more common in men who are not circumcised. Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin that covers the end of the penis. This procedure is commonly performed on newborn boys for medical, cultural and religious and reasons. Men who have a tight foreskin that is hard to pull back (phimosis) for washing sometimes notice a secretion under the foreskin that becomes a smelly substance (smegma). While smegma doesn’t necessarily cause penile cancer, it can irritate and inflame the penis, which can increase the risk of cancer.
  • smoking – Chemicals found in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco can damage cells in the body, including cells in the penis, which can increase your risk of developing penile cancer.
  • age – The risk of penile cancer increases with age and is more common in men over 50 years of age.
  • certain skin conditions – Men who have skin conditions such as psoriasis or lichen sclerosus may have a higher rate of penile cancer.
  • HIV/AIDS – Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and men who contract HIV have a greater risk of developing penile cancer as their immune system is less able to fight off cancer.
  • premalignant lesions/conditions – If left untreated, these can become cancerous.
  • exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation – From either sunlight or UV lamps.

Featured resources

Understanding Penile Cancer

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Understanding Rare and Less Common Cancers

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: Gregory Bock, Urology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, WA Cancer and Palliative Care Network, North Metropolitan Health Service, WA; Dr Mikhail Lozinskiy, Consultant Urologist, Royal Perth Hospital, WA; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof Manish Patel, Urological cancer surgeon, University of Sydney, Westmead and Macquarie University Hospitals, Sydney, NSW; Walter Wood, Consumer; Dr Carlo Yuen, Urologist, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, Conjoint Senior Lecturer UNSW.