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Chemotherapy treatment for penile cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. You might have it as part of your treatment for penile cancer.

When you have chemotherapy

You might have chemotherapy into your bloodstream if your cancer has spread from the penis to other parts of your body. You might have it with radiotherapy before surgery. This can shrink the cancer and make it easier for your surgeon to remove.

Or you might have chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might be left behind.

How you have chemotherapy

You might have chemotherapy into a vein (intravenously) through a drip into your arm. A  nurse puts a small tube into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take newspapers, books or electronic devices to help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Types of chemotherapy

There are many different chemotherapy drugs. The most common drug for penile cancer is cisplatin.

Doctors might also use:

  • docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • ifosphamide
  • gemcitabine
  • mitomycin C
  • fluorouracil
  • methotrexate
  • bleomycin
  • irinotecan

Before you start chemotherapy

COVID swab test

Due to coronavirus, you need to have a test to check for coronavirus before you have treatment. The test is called a COVID swab test.

To have the test your nurse takes a sample from the inside of your nose and the back of your throat. They use a long cotton bud to take the sample. Or the sample might be saliva or other fluid. Depending on which test your hospital uses, it can take from 90 minutes to a few days to get a result.

At most hospitals, you have a COVID swab test 48 to 72 hours (up to 3 days) before going for your treatment in the chemotherapy unit.

This means you might have the swab test on the same day that you visit the hospital for blood tests and your doctor’s clinic appointment. If you have treatment weekly or more often, some hospitals will ask you to have the swab test on the day of treatment.

Check with your team about when you’ll have the test as there are some differences between hospitals.

Blood tests

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

The pharmacists make chemotherapy for each person individually. They do this once your blood test results have come through and it’s worked out based on your weight, height and general health.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight
  • feeling very tired
  • a lower resistance to infections
  • bleeding and bruising easily
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • hair loss
Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C, or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you react

Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.

Most side effects only last for a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

Let your doctors know if you take any supplements or if you’re prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

It’s uncertain how some nutritional or herbal supplements may interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful.

When you go home

Chemotherapy for penile cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Last reviewed: 
14 Jan 2021
Next review due: 
14 Jan 2024
  • Guidelines on Penile Cancer
    OW Hakenberg and others
    European Association of Urology (EAU), 2018

  • Penile carcinoma: ESMO clinical practice guidelines

    HN Van Poppel and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2013. Volume 24, Supplement 6

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)

    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg

    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015