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About penile cancer

Find out about who gets penile cancer, where it starts and how common it is.

The penis

The penis is the male sex organ. It is part of the urinary and reproductive system in the body. It has a tube called the urethra that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body, and carries semen (sperm) from the testicles.

The root is the base of the penis and is inside the body. From here it extends to the outside. It hangs in front of a pouch of skin called the scrotum. The scrotum holds both testicles.

Diagram showing the parts of the penis

The parts of the penis are the:

  • body or shaft
  • foreskin, a moveable layer of skin that that covers the tip of the penis (glans)
  • frenulum which is a ridge below the head of the penis

Some men have an operation called a circumcision to remove the foreskin. 

Different types of tissue including skin, muscle and nerves make up the penis. It has a rich blood supply. When sexually aroused, blood flow to the penis increases. Columns of special muscle tissue in the body of the penis (erectile tissue) fill up with blood. This makes it upright (an erection) during sexual activity.

This diagram shows the parts of the penis.

Diagram showing the anatomy of the penis

The lymph nodes

Lymph nodes, or lymph glands are small, bean shaped glands that make up part of the lymphatic system. They are all over the body, including in the pelvis. If penile cancer spreads it is most likely to be in the lymph nodes close to the penis. 

Diagram showing the position of the lymph nodes in the abdomen, pelvis and groin in a man

Who gets it

Most men diagnosed with penile cancer are older than 50. It rarely affects men under 40.
It is more common in men who live in Asia, Africa or South America.
The exact cause of penile cancer is not known but there are several risk factors including:

  • human palliloma virus (HPV) – this is a common infection and for most people it causes no harm
  • smoking

Where it starts

Cancer can develop anywhere on the penis but most commonly develops under the foreskin in men who haven’t been circumcised, or on the head or tip of the penis (glans).

The type of penile cancer depends on the type of cell it starts in.

How common it is

Penile cancer is a rare cancer in Western countries. Around 600 men are diagnosed each year in the UK.

Last reviewed: 
10 Mar 2016
  • Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (11th edition)
    A Waugh and A Grant
    Churchill Livingstone 2014

  • Penile Cancer Guidelines
    OW Hakenberg and others
    European Association of Urology, 2015

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.