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What is penile cancer?

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer and occurs on the foreskin, the glans (head) of the penis, or on the skin of the penile shaft. It occurs mostly in uncircumcised men (men who still have foreskin around the head of the penis).

Cancer is a disease of the cells. Normally, cells multiply and die in an orderly way, so that each new cell replaces one that has been lost. Sometimes, however, cells become abnormal and keep growing, forming a mass or lump called a tumour or a sore called an ulcer. Some of these are malignant (cancerous) and can grow and spread to other parts of the body.

But not all growths are cancerous. Sometimes growths can develop on the penis that are abnormal but are not malignant (these are called benign tumours). These lesions look like warts or irritated patches of the skin. These can be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It is important to discuss any growths you might have on your penis with your doctor as they might increase your risk of penile cancer.

Types of penile cancer

There are several types of penile cancer, depending on the type of cell from which the cancer develops. Almost all penile cancers start in the surface layer of cells (called epithelium) of the penis.

  • Squamous cell cancer (SCC) – the most common type of cancer of the penis. This cancer accounts for around 95% of cases and starts in the cells that cover the surface of the penis (squamous cell layer). Most of this type of cancer start on the foreskin (in men that have not been circumcised) or on the head of the penis (glans), but it can occur on the penile skin of the shaft as well.
  • Carcinoma in situ (CIS), penile intraepithelial neoplasia (PeIN) – the earliest stage of squamous cell penile cancer where cancer cells are only found in the very top layer of the skin cells, and the cancer has not spread any deeper.

Other rarer types of penile cancer include:

basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – another type of skin cancer that can develop in deeper cells of the squamous cells in a layer of skin.

adenocarcinoma – a type of cancer that develops in the sweat glands in the skin of the penis.

melanoma of the penis – a type of cancer that develops in the pigmented skin cells that give the skin its colour.

penile sarcoma – a very rare type of cancer that develops in the deeper tissues of the penis such as the blood vessels, muscle, fat or connective tissue in the penis.

How common is penile cancer?

Penile cancer is rare with around 103 Australians diagnosed each year (this is about 0.8 cases per 100,000 people). It is more likely to be diagnosed in men over 50 years of age but can also occur in younger men.

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.