Penile Cancer - Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu.

A risk factor is anything that increases a man’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors can increase a man’s risk of developing penile cancer:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The most important risk factor for penile cancer is infection with this virus. Sexual activity with a person who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. You can reduce your risk of HPV infection by limiting your number of sex partners, because having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection. Using a condom cannot fully protect you from HPV during sex. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.

  • Smoking. Smoking may contribute to the development of penile cancer, especially in men who are also infected with HPV.

  • Age. Penile cancer is most common in men older than 50. The average age that men in the United States are diagnosed with penile cancer is about 68 years. However, black and Hispanic men are more likely to be diagnosed earlier, at an average age of 60. In the United States, about 80% of men with penile cancer are at least 55 when diagnosed, whereas worldwide, about 20% of men diagnosed with penile cancer are younger than 40.

  • Smegma. Smegma is a thick substance that can build up under the foreskin and is caused by dead skin cells, bacteria, and oily secretions from the skin. Smegma may contain small amounts of cancer-causing substances. Uncircumcised men should pull back, or retract, the foreskin and thoroughly wash the penis on a regular basis. This is to make sure that smegma does not irritate the penis.

  • Phimosis. Phimosis occurs when the foreskin becomes tight and is difficult to retract. This causes smegma to build up more easily. Men with phimosis are less likely to be able to thoroughly clean the penis.

  • HIV/AIDS. Infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), is a risk factor for penile cancer. When a man is HIV-positive, their immune system is less able to fight off early-stage cancer.

  • Psoriasis treatment. Men who have received the drug psoralen combined with ultraviolet (UV) light have a higher risk of developing penile cancer.

Prevention

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

  • Circumcision. Circumcision may provide some protection from penile cancer because removing the foreskin helps keep the area clean. Epidermoid/squamous cell carcinoma of the penis almost never occurs in men who are circumcised. However, it is important to note that circumcision alone cannot prevent penile cancer.

  • Personal hygiene. Men who carefully and completely clean under the foreskin on a regular basis can lower their risk of developing penile cancer.

  • Lifestyle factors. Not smoking and avoiding sexual practices that could lead to an HPV or HIV/AIDS infection can help lower your risk of penile cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.