Risks for penile cancer

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

Having an HPV infection is the main risk for penile cancer.

Penile cancer not common in Canada. While it can develop at any age, the risk usually increases with age. Penile cancer most often happens in men older than 60 years of age.

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

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (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.

Learn more about human papilloma virus (HPV) and how to reduce your risk of HPV.

Not being circumcised

Circumcision is removal of the foreskin of the penis. Men who were circumcised as newborns or children seem to develop penile cancer less often than men 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 of every newborn boy. Decisions about circumcision are highly personal and often depend on religion and culture more than medical reasons.

Phimosis

In men who are not circumcised, the foreskin of the 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 and may lead to infections or chronic inflammation.

Men with BXO often develop phimosis. They may have an even greater risk of developing penile cancer than men with phimosis alone.

Poor genital hygiene

When a man isn't circumcised, smegma can sometimes collect under the foreskin. Smegma is a natural, thick substance made up of dead skin cells, bacteria and oil. 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. This includes people with HIV or AIDS and people who have had an organ transplant and must take medicines to suppress their immune system.

Possible risks

The following have been linked with penile cancer, but there is not enough evidence to know for sure that they are risks. More research is needed.

  • smoking tobacco
  • obesity
  • adult-acquired buried penis (excess fat or skin from the stomach or thighs covers the penis)

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

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