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What is penile cancer?

Penile cancer is when abnormal cells in the penis start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way.

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

This video shows you the different parts of the male reproductive system. It lasts for 1 minute and forty seconds. 

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

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.

Who gets penile cancer

Most men diagnosed with penile cancer are older than 50. It rarely affects men under 40. The exact cause of penile cancer is not known but there are several risk factors including:

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

How common it is

Penile cancer is very rare. Around 670 men are diagnosed each year in the UK. That’s around 2 cases diagnosed every day. 

Last reviewed: 
15 Oct 2020
Next review due: 
15 Oct 2023
  • Anatomy and Physiology for Nurses

    R Watson

    Elsevier Health Sciences, 2011

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Penile Cancer Guidelines
    OW Hakenberg and others
    European Association of Urology, 2018

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2015 - 2017 UK average) 
    Accessed September 2020