Risks for penile cancer

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Some things can affect your risk, or chance, of developing cancer. Certain behaviours, substances or conditions can increase or decrease the risk. Most cancers are the result of many risks. But sometimes cancer develops in people who don't have any risks.

Having an infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main risk for penile cancer.

Penile cancer is not common in Canada. The risk of developing it increases as you get older. It most often happens in men older than 60 years of age, but it can develop at any age.

Some of the things that increase the risk for penile cancer may also cause precancerous conditions. Precancerous conditions of the penis include penile intraepithelial neoplasia (PeIN) and balanitis xerotica obliterans (BXO). They are not cancer, but they can sometimes become invasive penile cancer if they aren't treated. Find out more about precancerous conditions of the penis.

The following can increase your risk for penile cancer. There are things you can do to lower your risk and help protect you from developing cancer.

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can cause warts (called papillomas) on different parts of the body, including the genitals. HPV infections are very common because the virus is easily passed by skin-to-skin contact with any HPV-infected area of the body. It is mainly spread through sexual contact, including oral sex. HPV increases the risk for penile cancer.

Learn more about HPV and how to reduce your risk of HPV.

Not being circumcised

A circumcised penis has had the foreskin removed. People who were circumcised as newborns or children seem to develop penile cancer less often than those who were circumcised later. Being circumcised as an adult does not appear to provide any protection against penile cancer.

Although there is evidence that circumcision at a young age lowers the risk for penile cancer, there is not enough evidence to recommend it as a way of preventing the disease. The Canadian Paediatric Society does not recommend routine circumcision. Decisions about circumcision are highly personal and often depend on religion and culture more than medical reasons.


The foreskin of an uncircumcised penis may become thick and tight and difficult to pull back (retract). This condition is called phimosis. Phimosis makes it harder to clean the penis well. This can lead to infections or chronic inflammation, which increases your risk for penile cancer.

People with BXO often develop phimosis. If you have BXO and phimosis, your risk of developing penile cancer may be greater than if you have phimosis alone.

Smegma buildup

Smegma is a natural, thick substance made up of dead skin cells, bacteria and oil. It can sometimes collect under the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis. This buildup of smegma can become worse if the penis isn't cleaned properly.

Having a buildup of smegma can cause chronic irritation and inflammation of the penis, which increases your risk for penile cancer.

Weak immune system

Having a weak immune system (immunosuppression) increases your risk for penile cancer. You may have a weak immune system for different reasons, including if you have HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or if you have had an organ transplant and must take medicines to suppress your immune system.

Possible risks

Smoking tobacco has been linked with penile cancer, but more research is needed to know for sure that it is a risk.

Understanding your cancer risk

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your doctor questions about risks. Learn how cancer can be prevented and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Expert review and references

  • Canadian Cancer Society | Société canadienne du cancer
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