Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(3):617-618

What is cancer?

The body is made up of many kinds of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide, and die. Sometimes, cells change and begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. Rather than dying, these abnormal cells clump together to form tumors. If these tumors are cancerous, they can invade and kill your body's healthy tissues. From these tumors, cancer cells can spread and form new tumors in other parts of the body. By contrast, noncancerous tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.

Penile cancer, or cancer of the penis, is cancer on the skin and in the tissues of the penis.

Men who are not circumcised at birth may have a higher risk for getting penile cancer. A circumcision is an operation in which the doctor takes away part or all of the foreskin from the penis. The foreskin is the skin that covers the tip of the penis. A circumcision is done on many baby boys before they go home from the hospital.

How does my doctor check for cancer?

Your doctor will examine your penis and feel for any lumps. If your penis does not look normal or if your doctor feels any lumps, a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy) will be cut from the penis and looked at under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells.

Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms

  • Sores on your penis

  • Lumps or growths on your penis

  • Any unusual liquid, such as pus, coming from your penis (called abnormal discharge)

  • Any sign of blood on your penis or coming from your penis

If cancer is found, more tests will be done to find out if the cancer has spread from your penis to other parts of the body. This is called staging. Your doctor needs to know the stage of the cancer to plan treatment.

How is penile cancer treated?

Four kinds of treatment are used: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and biologic therapy.

Surgery is the most common treatment. During surgery, the area with cancer is cut out.

Radiation therapy uses x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation) or from little beads that contain radiation and are put through thin plastic tubes into the area where the cancer cells are (internal radiation). Radiation may be used alone or after surgery.

Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells. Fluorouracil cream (a chemotherapy drug put on the skin of the penis) is sometimes used for very small surface cancers of the penis. Chemotherapy also may be given in pills or by a needle into a vein. When chemotherapy is given in this way, it is called a systemic treatment because the medicines enter the bloodstream, travel through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the penis.

Biologic therapy tries to get the body to fight cancer. It uses materials made by the body or made in a laboratory to boost, direct, and restore the body's natural defenses against disease. Biologic treatment is sometimes called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy.

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