Penile Cancer: Patient Education

Cancer Facts

According to the American Cancer Society:

  • In North America, penile cancer is very rare.
  • Penile cancer occurs in about 1 man in 100,000 and accounts for less than 1 percent of cancers in men in the United States.
  • About 1,570 new cases of penile cancer will be diagnosed, and 310 men will die of penile cancer in the United States in 2012.

According to the National Cancer Institute:

  • Some studies suggest an association between human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and penile cancer.
  • Early-stage penile cancer is highly curable.


Penile cancer is a malignant growth that starts in the penis. The penis is part of the male reproductive system and part of the urinary system. Penile cancer is rare.

The penis is comprised of three parts:

  • Shaft — the long, rod-like part of the penis
  • Glans — the head of the penis
  • Foreskin — piece of skin covering the glans; sometimes removed in infants (circumcision)

The penis has three chambers containing spongy tissue. This tissue contains:

  • Nerves
  • Smooth muscles
  • Blood vessels

Types of Penile Cancer

There are several kinds of cancer that develop in the different cells within the tissues of the penis. The different cancers vary in their severity and in their treatment.

Most penile cancers begin in the skin cells of the penis.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • About 95 percent of penile cancers
  • Develops in the flat skin cells of the penis (called squamous cells)
  • Can develop anywhere on the penis
  • Usually develops on the foreskin or glans
  • Usually grows slowly
  • If found early, often can be cured
  • Also called epidermoid carcinoma and non-melanoma skin cancer

Verrucous carcinoma

  • Uncommon form of squamous cell carcinoma
  • Appears as a genital wart
  • Usually grows slowly but can grow very large

Carcinoma in situ (CIS)

  • Early-stage squamous cell carcinoma found in the top layer of skin
  • Also known as erythroplasia of Queyrat or Bowen’s disease, depending on location on the penis


  • Fewer than 2 percent of penile cancers
  • Develops in the melanocytes (cells that protect skin from the sun)
  • Usually grows quickly and spreads quickly
  • For more information, see our document on melanoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma

  • Fewer than 2 percent of penile cancers
  • Develops in the basal cells (the lower epidermis)
  • Usually grows slowly and rarely spreads

Adenocarcinoma (Paget Disease of the Penis)

  • Very rare
  • Develops in the sweat glands of the penis
  • In some cases can be difficult to distinguish from other penile cancers
  • May spread to lymph nodes


  • About 1 percent of penile cancers
  • Develops in the soft tissues (blood vessels, smooth muscles, etc.) of the penis
  • For more information, please see our documents on sarcoma

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