Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that occurs either on the skin of the penis or within the penis. According to experts, the number of penile cancer cases has been on the rise for the last 30 years due to changes in sexual practices. Here’s what you need to know about it.
Like many types of cancers, the causes of penile cancer are not really known. However, being uncircumcised is a risk factor. Experts argue that if bodily fluids get trapped in the foreskin and are not washed away, they may contribute to the growth of cancer cells. Research also shows that men who are exposed to human papillomavirus (HPV) are also more likely to get penile cancer. The disease is more common in men above 60 years, smokers and men who have weakened immune system.
Signs and symptoms of penile cancer
You are advised to see a medical doctor if you notice or experience the following symptoms.
- A sore on the penis
- Swollen lymph nodes on the groin
- Irregular swelling at the edge of the penis
- Pain at the tip of the penis
- Skin thickening on the penis
- Changes in the colour of the penis
- Persistent discharge with a foul odour
Diagnosing the condition
Doctors use the following tests to determine whether one has the disease.
- Biopsy: This is the removal of a small part of tissue, which is then examined under a microscope. The unusual change on a man’s penis may make a doctor to do a biopsy to find out whether one has penile cancer.
- Groin lymph node dissection: This refers to the removal of lymph nodes and tissues from the groin region and it is the main way of finding out whether cancer has spread near the penis.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Here, doctors use magnetic field to produce detailed images of the body. MRI is also used to measure the size of tumours.
- Fine needle aspiration: The doctor will insert a very thin needle into lymph nodes near the affected area to get fluid from them. A lab test will show whether the lymph nodes contain cancer.
- Computed tomography: This is a CT scan that creates three-dimensional pictures of the body using X-rays taken from different angles. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows abnormalities or tumours.
Types of penile cancer
The type of penile cancer depends on the type of cell it started in. Here are different types of penile cancer:
- Squamous cell penile cancer: It is the most common type of penile cancer as it accounts for more than 90 per cent of the reported cases. It originates from the cells that cover the surface of the penis. They can develop anywhere but the most common sites are at the head of the penis.
- Adenocarcinoma: This type starts at glandular cells of the penis that produce sweat.
- Melanoma: This is the most serious type of skin cancer. Here, the disease attacks melanin that gives skin cells colour.
- Sarcoma: It develops in the tissues that support and connect the body such as blood vessels, muscle and fat. It is rare but it grows more quickly.
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Treatment options available
- Surgery: This is the removal of the tumour and some surrounding healthy tissues.
- Radiation therapy: This is the use of high energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. For penile cancer, radiation therapy is focussed on the tumour in the penis or directed at lymph nodes in the groin and sometimes to the pelvis to destroy any cancer cells that have spread.
- Chemotherapy: This is the use of drugs to destroy cancerous cells. It stops cancerous cells from growing and dividing.
It’s not always possible to prevent penile cancer but you can reduce chances of getting it by using a condom during sex to avoid catching the HPV virus and keeping the penis clean through washing it regularly using warm water including under the foreskin if you are not circumcised.
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