Penile Cancer

Updated: Dec 13, 2022
  • Author: Stanley A Brosman, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
  • Print

Practice Essentials

Penile cancer is uncommon, but when it is diagnosed, it is psychologically devastating to the patient and often presents a challenge to the urologist. Benign, premalignant, and malignant conditions must be differentiated.

Penile squamous cell carcinoma (see image below), the most common penile malignancy, behaves similarly to squamous cell carcinoma in other parts of the skin. This is a slow-growing cancer in its early stages, and because it seldom interferes with voiding or erectile function, patients often do not complain until pain or a discharge from the cancer occurs. By this time, the cancer has usually progressed from being superficial to invasive. Metastasis, which occurs with this type of carcinoma when the diagnosis or treatment is delayed, is usually lethal. 

Penile cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma (Image cour Penile cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma (Image courtesy of Hon Pak, MD).

Patients with carcinoma of the penis tend to delay seeking medical attention, with 15-50% delaying medical attention for more than 1 year from onset. This delay is attributed to embarrassment, guilt, fear, ignorance, and personal neglect. Patients often try to treat themselves with various skin creams and lotions. These may appear to be effective for a time, which further delays the diagnosis and worsens the prognosis.

Delays may also be attributable to the physician. Some patients with penile cancer report that they received various salves and antibiotics from their primary care physicians before they saw an urologist. A delay in diagnosis and therapy not only affects the likelihood of survival but also limits the ability to obtain a functioning and cosmetically satisfactory result. Nearly 25% of dysplastic or neoplastic penile lesions are initially misdiagnosed as benign.

A biopsy should be considered in any uncircumcised male who presents with a penile lesion. These tend to originate on the glans penis and the undersurface of the prepuce. Many benign conditions may be found in this area, and only a biopsy can clarify the diagnosis.


History of the Procedure

Surgery has been the traditional therapy for penile cancer. Superficial penile carcinoma is typically managed with local resection, often with just a circumcision, whereas invasive disease is treated with partial or total penectomy and bilateral lymphadenectomy. Cancers on the glans or adjacent to the urethral meatus may be treated with Mohs surgery, in which a microscopic dissection can remove the cancer but obtain a good cosmetic result. [1]

Comparing treatment strategies is difficult because this is a rare cancer and no institution is able to amass enough experience to conduct clinical trials. Most published reports cover a span of a decade or longer. The single greatest predictor of disease-free survival is the presence of inguinal nodal metastasis. The morbidity associated with inguinal lymphadenectomy has discouraged surgeons from aggressively pursuing this treatment unless palpable nodes are present. As many as 30% of patients without palpable inguinal nodes have micrometastatic disease. [2] If these are removed, the surgery can be curative.

In recent years, improved diagnostic techniques have been developed to determine the presence of lymph node metastases. Surgical techniques have been refined to reduce the morbidity associated with penile and lymph node resection.

Radiotherapy is an alternative to conservative surgical treatment for stage T1-T2 tumors of the glans that are less than 4 cm in size.

For noninvasive penile cancer, topical therapy with 5% 5-fluorouracil cream or 5% imiquimod cream may result in complete responses in approximately 50% of cases. Photodynamic therapy and laser ablation have also been used. [3, 4] Laser therapy in combination with radiotherapy or chemotherapy has been reported in penile intraepithelial neoplasia and T1 penile cancers. [5]

Systemic chemotherapy is recommended in patients with inguinal lymph node metastases. [5] The results are poor in men with extensive metastases.

Invasive penile cancer diagnosed in the absence of clinically evident nodal metastases (as determined by physical examination or imaging) can be treated with local resection and penile reconstruction. Inguinal lymph nodes need to be evaluated with bilateral lymphadenectomy or sentinel node biopsies. In some situations, radiation therapy to the penile tumor is applicable. Palpable inguinal lymph nodes should be assessed to determine the presence or absence of nodal metastasis. The 30% incidence of micrometastases in nonpalpable inguinal lymph nodes emphasizes the importance of nodal assessment.

The ability to identify a sentinel node has been a valuable adjunct in the refinement of surgical management. Various imaging techniques have shown increasing sensitivity for identifying these nodes, sparing the need for extensive, bilateral inguinal lymphadenectomy, which is associated with a high degree of morbidity.

A 4-week to 6-week waiting period prior to surgery was once believed to be necessary. During that time, the patient was treated with antibiotics to allow lymph nodes that were enlarged as a result of infection to return to their normal state. Currently, tumor excision and lymph node excision are performed at the same time. [6]

The presence of palpable inguinal nodal metastasis is managed by a bilateral radical lymphadenectomy followed by an extensive pelvic lymphadenectomy. Postoperative chemotherapy and radiation therapy is used, depending on the surgical outcome. [7]

In the past, an excisional margin of 2 cm around the cancer was thought to be necessary. However, with improved histopathology techniques, a margin of 0.5-1 cm may be sufficient. [8]



Penile tumors can originate anywhere on the penis, but most are found on the glans (48%) and prepuce (21%). The presentation can be a hyperemic area on the glans or near the urethral meatus. The cancers can range from an area of subtle induration to a small excrescence or papule. They can be exophytic or flat, or an ulcerated lesion may be present. A sensation of itching or burning under the foreskin or an ulceration of the glans are the most common presenting symptoms. Pain is rarely present.

Penile cancer rarely develops in circumcised males. However, men with chronic lymphocytic leukemia are predisposed to the development of squamous cell carcinomas anywhere on the body, including the penis.

Tumors may initially form on the corona of the glans and spread superficially across the glans and into the prepuce. Phimosis may conceal the cancer, allowing it to progress. Eventually, as the cancer grows, erosion through the prepuce, a foul odor, and a discharge are evident. The Buck fascia acts as a natural barrier to the corpora, but over time, the cancer invades the corpora. As these cancers spread over the glans, they may involve the urethral meatus and grow into the urethra.

Patients who are diagnosed with penile cancer have various treatment options. If the tumor is smaller than 2 cm (and particularly if it is confined to the prepuce), circumcision may be all that is necessary. Penile cancer tends to remain confined to the skin for long periods, often years, but when it invades the deeper tissues, the cancer has ready access to lymphatics and blood vessels and the growth rate is rapid.



Penile cancer is rare in Western countries. The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2022, 2070 penile cancers will be diagnosed in the United States, with 470 deaths. [9] This death rate of almost 23% underscores the seriousness of penile cancer; for comparison, less than 13% of men with prostate cancer die from it.

Barnholtz-Sloan et al studied the incidence trends of primary penile cancer in the United States using data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database of 1,817 men. They found that the overall incidence of primary malignant penile cancer decreased over the final 3 decades of the 20th century. The overall incidence was 0.84 per 100,000 from 1973-1982, 0.69 from 1982-1992, and 0.58 from 1993-2002. Most of the cancers were squamous cell and originated on the glans. From 1993-2002, the incidence was highest among Hispanics (1.01 per 100,000), followed by Alaskan Native Americans (0.77 per 100,000) and African Americans (0.62 per 100,000). [10]

In contrast, a review of the National Cancer Database found that from 1998 to 2012, cases of all stages of penile squamous cell carcinoma increased, with a greater proportion of advanced cases over time. Factors significantly associated with advanced presentation were age older than 55 years, the presence of comorbidities, and Medicaid or no insurance. [11]

Penile cancer accounts for 0.4-0.6% of all malignancies in the United States and Europe. In the rest of the world, the situation is different and represents an important health problem. Penile carcinoma represents up to 10% of all cancers diagnosed in men in some parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. [12]

In urban India, the age-adjusted incidence of penile cancer ranges from 0.7-2.3 cases per 100,000 men. In rural India, the rate of penile cancer is 3 cases per 100,000 men, accounting for more than 6% of all malignancies in this population. In underdeveloped countries such as Uganda, the incidence is 2.8/100,000 and 1% of the men have developed this cancer by age 75. In Brazil, the age-adjusted incidence of penile cancer is 8.3 cases per 100,000 population.

Penile cancer is rare in circumcised men, particularly if they were circumcised as a neonate. Worldwide, the lowest incidence rates of penile cancer, 0.1 cases per 100,000 men, are found in countries that have robust medical systems and religious practices leading to high rates of neonatal circumcision, such as Israel. [13]   

Seyam et al studied penile carcinoma in 22 men who had been circumcised. Eighteen of these patients came from the southwest part of Saudi Arabia and had undergone late ritual circumcision. This practice, known as “Tihamah” circumcision, involves removing an extensive amount of skin, including some of the pubic skin. This procedure results in extensive cicatrization, which is probably the underlying cause of the resulting squamous cell cancer. Radiation therapy was attempted in a few of the patients, with unsuccessful results, whereas the group treated with surgery had a median survival of 34 months. [14]

Penile cancer tends to be a disease of older men. The incidence of penile cancer increases abruptly in men aged 60 years or older and peaks in men aged 80 years. However, the tumor is not unusual in younger men. One study reported that 22% of patients with penile cancer were younger than 40 years, and 7% were younger than 30 years. [15]

The National Cancer Institute’s SEER program was used to gather data on 1605 men diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the penis. Carcinoma in situ (CIS) was diagnosed in 37% of this population, localized disease was diagnosed in 39%, regional disease was present in 13%, distant disease was present in 2.3%, and unstaged disease remained in 7.9%. [16]

According to SEER data, the proportion of men presenting annually with CIS has tended to increase, although the number of men with localized disease has decreased. Older age at diagnosis was associated with a higher stage of disease. The mean time until death from cancer was 66.8 months in those with CIS, 50.1 months in those with localized disease, 32.4 months in those with regional disease, and 7.4 months in those with distant metastases. Overall, 22.4% of the patients in this database died of this cancer. [16]



Risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma of the penis include the following [12] :

  • Not having undergone circumcision as a neonate
  • Phimosis
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Poor penile hygiene
  • Tobacco use
  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Immunosuppression

Circumcision has been well established as an effective prophylactic measure for penile cancer. Data from most large series have demonstrated that penile cancer is almost never observed in individuals who were circumcised in the neonatal period. The disease is found more frequently when circumcision is delayed until puberty. Adult circumcision offers little or no protection. No firm evidence indicates that smegma acts as a carcinogen, although this belief is widely held.

Phimosis is present in at least 25-75% of men with this disease. Information on presence of phimosis often goes unrecorded in underdeveloped countries, and epidemiologic data are lacking.

Penile cancer, like cervical cancer in women, has been associated with HPV infection. In women whose sexual partners had penile cancer, the prevalence of cervical cancer is increased 3- to 8-fold. HPV-16 and HPV-18 have been found in one third of men with penile cancer. Whether these viruses are involved with causation of the cancer or are found as saprophytes has not been determined. No data have indicated that herpes viral infections cause penile cancer.

Madsen et al studied a population that included 71 patients with invasive or in situ squamous cell carcinoma, 86 prostate cancer controls, and 103 men as population controls. PCR was used to examine for HPV in tissue samples of 37 patients with squamous cell carcinoma. The study found high-risk HPV in 65% of the 37 patients, of whom 22 of 24 (92%) were found to have HPV-16. Risk factors included early and high sexual activity, the lifetime number of sexual partners, the number of sexual partners prior to age 20 years, age at first occurrence of intercourse, penile-oral sex, a history of anogenital warts, and never having used condoms. A history of phimosis and priapism occurring more than 5 years prior to diagnosis were also significant risk factors. [17]

Cigarette smoking and chewing tobacco are also considered to be a risk factors. Harish and Ravi reported that the risk for those smoking more than 10 cigarettes a day was 2.14. The combination of chewing tobacco and cigarette smoking raised the risk to 3.39. [18] Maden et al found that the risk of penile cancer in men who were smoking at the time of diagnosis was 2.8 times that of men who never smoked. [19]

Penile trauma, usually consisting of small tears or abrasions involving the prepuce, and a history of chronic balanitis that occurred more than 2 years prior to diagnosis had an odds ratio of 23 for carcinoma in situ and 4.6 for invasive cancer. Hellberg et al reported that multiple episodes of balanitis had a relative risk of 9.49. [20] These observations support the theory correlating chronic inflammation to the development of cancer.

Penile intraepithelial neoplasia is considered to be premalignant, but only 5-15% of these lesions evolve into invasive squamous cell carcinoma. [21] The 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) classification of penile cancer subclassifies precursor lesions and tumors into HPV-associated and HPV-independent types. HPV-associated penile intraepithelial neoplasia is a precursor lesion of invasive HPV-associated squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), whereas differentiated penile intraepithelial neoplasia is a precursor lesion of HPV-independent SCC. [22]



Penile cancers usually begin as small lesions on the glans or prepuce. They range from white-grey, irregular exophytic to reddish flat and ulcerated endophytic masses. They gradually grow laterally along the surface and can cover the entire glans and prepuce before invading the corpora and shaft of the penis. The more extensive the lesion, the greater the possibility of local invasion and nodal metastasis. Penile cancers may be papillary and exophytic or flat and ulcerative. Untreated, penile autoamputation can occur.

The growth rates of the papillary and ulcerative lesions are similar, but the flat ulcerative lesions tend to metastasize to the lymph nodes earlier and are therefore associated with a lower 5-year survival rate. Cancers larger than 5 cm and those involving more than 75% of the shaft are associated with a high prevalence of nodal metastases and a lower survival rate, but a consistent relationship among the size of the cancer, the presence of inguinal node metastases, and survival has not been identified.

The Buck fascia, which surrounds the corpora, acts as a temporary barrier. Eventually, the cancer penetrates the Buck fascia and the tunica albuginea, where the cancer has access to the vasculature and from which systemic spread is possible.

Metastasis to the femoral and inguinal lymph nodes is the earliest path for tumor dissemination. The lymphatics of the prepuce join with those from the shaft. These drain into the superficial inguinal nodes. Because of lymphatic crossover, cancer cells have access to lymph nodes in both inguinal areas.

The lymphatics of the glans follow a different path and join those draining the corpora. A circular band of lymphatics that drains to the superficial nodes is located at the base of the penis and can extend to both the superficial and deep pelvic lymph nodes.

The superficial inguinal nodes drain to the deep inguinal nodes, which are beneath the fascia lata. From here, drainage is to the pelvic nodes. Multiple cross connections exist at all levels, permitting bilateral penile lymphatic drainage.

Untreated metastatic enlargement of the regional nodes leads to skin necrosis, chronic infection, and, eventually, death from sepsis or hemorrhage secondary to erosion into the femoral vessels. Clinically apparent distant metastases to the lung, liver, bone, or brain are unusual until late in the disease course, often after the primary disease has been treated. Distant metastases are usually associated with regional node involvement.

Microscopically, the tumors vary from well-differentiated keratinizing tumors to solid anaplastic carcinomas with scant keratinization. Most tumors are highly keratinized and are of moderate differentiation. Poorly differentiated carcinomas have variable amounts of spindle cell, giant cell, solid, acantholytic, clear cell, small cell, warty, basaloid, or glandular components.

Penile carcinoma follows a relentless and progressive course that proves to be fatal in most untreated patients within 2 years. [23] The typical SCC has a recurrence rate of 28% and lymph node metastases are found in 28-39% depending upon the extent and grade of the tumor. The mortality rate is 20-38% with a 10-year survival rate of 78%. Spontaneous remission has not been reported.



Typical presentations of penile cancer include a lesion that has failed to heal, a subtle induration in the skin, a small excrescence, a papule, a pustule, a warty growth, a large exophytic growth, or a reddened area on the glans. The malignancy may appear as a shallow erosion or a deep ulceration with rolled edges. Because most patients with penile cancer are uncircumcised, they may have a phimosis that obscures the tumor and allows it to grow undetected. Many men do not seek medical attention until the cancer has eroded through the prepuce and has become malodorous because of infection and necrosis.

In rare cases, an inguinal mass ulcerates, suppurates, or hemorrhages.

Few symptoms are associated with the development of penile cancer. Even after significant local tissue destruction, pain is uncommon. Patients with advanced metastatic cancer may report weakness, weight loss, and fatigue; the penile lesion may bleed.

The presence of a nonhealing penile lesion usually prompts the patient to visit a physician. While carcinoma may manifest as a hyperemic patch on the glans that is characteristic of erythroplasia of Queyrat or as an ulcerated growth on the inner surface of the prepuce, the differential diagnoses include benign and premalignant lesions.

Penile lesions can be categorized as benign, premalignant, or malignant neoplasms. Benign lesions include pearly penile papules, hirsute papillomas, and coronal papillae. These lesions do not require treatment and are usually found on the glans in uncircumcised males. Other abnormalities considered to be nonmalignant include cutaneous horns, pseudoepitheliomatous keratotic and micaceous balanitis, lichen sclerosus, giant condyloma, and bowenoid papulosis. Rashes, ulcerations from irritation, and allergic reactions or infections must be considered.

Some histologically benign lesions are potentially malignant (premalignant) or have been associated with the presence of squamous cell carcinoma. The most common is balanitis xerotica obliterans. This is a variation of lichen sclerosus et atrophicus and manifests as a white patch on the prepuce or glans, where it usually involves the urethral meatus. This can produce severe cicatrization, leading to obstruction of the urethra.

Leukoplakia manifests as solitary plaque or multiple whitish plaques, which often involve the meatus. Leukoplakia has been associated with squamous cell carcinoma.

Viral lesions include condyloma acuminata, which are soft papillomatous growths. They are also known as venereal warts and have a predilection for the genital and perineal regions. These lesions are usually sexually transmitted and are caused by HPV. Viral types 6, 11, 42, and 44 are associated with low-grade dysplasia. Types 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, and 39 are associated with neoplastic changes. De Paula et al studied the presence of koilocytosis, which is a feature of productive HPV infection and is characterized by large halos around cell nuclei. Koilocytosis is found in approximately 30%-60% of patients with penile cancer. They found that the presence of koilocytosis correlated with Jackson stage and grade but not with nodal disease or survival. [24]

Lichen sclerosus, also known as balanitis xerotica obliterans, is a chronic lymphocyte-mediated skin disease that can develop on any cutaneous surface and has been associated with squamous cell carcinoma of the penis. Biopsy of the lesion should be obtained prior to initiating therapy. A direct causative link between these entities has not been established, but the presence of a chronic inflammatory lesion is thought to promote the development of many types of cancers.

A study by Mannweiler et al revealed HPV-negative carcinomas were correlated with advanced lichen sclerosus and lichen planus, differentiated penile intraepithelial neoplasia, and accumulation of T lymphocytes with monoclonal rearrangement of the T-cell receptor γ locus. [25]

Kaposi sarcoma manifests as a cutaneous neovascular lesion that is raised, usually painful, and often ulcerated with a bluish discoloration. Patients with AIDS are predisposed to develop this condition.

Giant condyloma acuminata or a Buschke-Löwenstein tumor differs from the standard condyloma in that it displaces, invades, and destroys adjacent structures by compression, whereas the standard condyloma remains superficial and never invades. Despite their large size and invasive potential, Buschke-Löwenstein tumors show no signs of malignant change upon histologic examination.

Lesions with malignant potential include variants of squamous CIS, erythroplasia of Queyrat, and Bowen disease. These are differentiated by their appearance and the site of origin. CIS can develop in the tissue around the urethral meatus and spread down the urethra. These lesions have a red to red-brown appearance and generally have an irregular border. Erythroplasia involves the glans, prepuce, or penile shaft, while similar lesions on the remainder of the genitalia and perineum are termed Bowen disease. Histopathologically, however, all these lesions are classified as undifferentiated penile intraepithelial neoplasia; all should be biopsied, staged, and treated.

Herpes viral infections have not been associated with the development of penile cancers.



Indications for therapy and therapeutic options depend on the histologic diagnosis of cancer established based on biopsy findings, the location and size of the tumor, and the presence or absence of palpable inguinal lymphadenopathy. All patients with penile cancer require therapy because spontaneous regression does not occur and, untreated, the cancer ultimately causes death.

Rippentrop et al studied the surgical therapy status among the 1605 men identified in the SEER database. Surgical therapy was recorded in 1422 patients, of whom 721 (50.7%) underwent some form of surgery. Excisional biopsy was performed in 19.7%, and topical therapy with laser or cryoablation was used in 0.3%. Of those undergoing surgery, 13.1% underwent partial penectomy without lymphadenectomy, 2.1% underwent a combined procedure, and only 0.5% required radical penectomy. [16]


Relevant Anatomy

The anatomy of the penis has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of penile cancer. Embryologically, the 3 erectile bodies of the penis arise from the paired genital tubercles, which give rise to the corpora cavernosa, the caudal portion of the urogenital sinus that creates the corpora spongiosum, and the paired urethral folds, which join in the midline.

For purposes of description, the penis may be divided into the root, which is located within the superficial perineal pouch and is the primary fixation point; the body, which contains the 3 corpora and the overlying tissues; and the glans, which sits as a cap on the corpora cavernosa but is a part of the corpora spongiosa.

The superficial fascia is continuous with dartos fascia posteriorly and with the Scarpa and Camper fascia anteriorly. The superficial fascia consists of a single layer with loose connections to the overlying skin.

The corpora are covered by a layer of dense fibrous tissue called the tunica albuginea. The corpora cavernosa are incompletely separated by the septum penis, a thin layer of fibrous tissue continuous with the tunica albuginea. The fascia overlying the corpora cavernosa blends with the fascia of the urogenital diaphragm. The erectile tissue within the corpora is composed of a spongelike network of endothelium-lined sinusoidal spaces.