Penile Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2017

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Penile Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

About the penis

The penis is the external genital organ of a man. It is made up of 3 chambers of spongy tissue that contain smooth muscle and many blood vessels and nerves. The corpora cavernosa makes up 2 of the chambers that are located on both sides of the upper part of the penis. The corpus spongiosum is located below the corpora cavernosa and surrounds the urethra. The urethra is the tube through which urine and semen leave the body at an opening called the meatus. At the tip of the penis, the corpora cavernosa expands to form the head of the penis, or glans.

About penile cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a malignant tumor. Malignant means that the tumor is cancerous and can grow and spread to other parts of the body. There are also benign tumors of the penis that are not cancers. They can grow but do not spread.

Penile cancer is a rare form of cancer that occurs mostly in uncircumcised men. Uncircumcised means that a man still has the piece of skin called the foreskin covering the head of the penis. Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin and may reduce the risk of penile cancer.

Types of penile cancer 

There are several types of penile cancer, including: 

  • Epidermoid/squamous cell carcinoma. Ninety-five percent (95%) of penile cancer is epidermoid, or squamous cell, carcinoma. This means that the cells look like the tissues that make up skin when seen through a microscope. Squamous cell carcinoma can begin anywhere on the penis. But it usually develops on or under the foreskin. When found at an early stage, epidermoid carcinoma can usually be cured.

  • Basal cell carcinoma. Basal cells can sometimes become cancerous. These are round cells located under the squamous cells in a layer of skin called the lower epidermis. Basal cell carcinoma is a type of non-melanoma skin cancer. Less than 2% of penile cancers are basal cell cancers.

  • Melanoma. The deepest layer of the epidermis contains scattered cells called melanocytes. These cells make the melanin that gives skin color. Melanoma starts in melanocytes. It is the most serious type of skin cancer. This type of cancer sometimes occurs on the surface of the penis. Learn more about melanoma.

  • Sarcoma. About 1% of penile cancers are sarcomas. Sarcomas develop in the tissues that support and connect the body, such as blood vessels, muscle, and fat. Learn more about sarcoma

This section covers cancer that begins in or on the penis. Learn about cancer that starts in the testicles in a separate section of this website. 

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of men who are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.