I Had Penile Cancer: Here’s What I Want All Men to Know

"My experience was not as bad as you'd think."


Emily Shiffer |

When William*, 52, first noticed he had a few “brown, wart-like bumps on my shaft,” he wasn’t particularly concerned. “I just wanted to know what it was,” he told Men’s Health.

So he decided to pay a visit to his dermatologist, who performed a biopsy. The doctor confirmed that the bumps were squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer. He would have to have surgery to remove the cancer.

Related: Guys, Why Aren’t You Checking Your Balls For Testicular Cancer?

Having had skin cancer before, William took the news in stride.

“I was not in the slightest alarmed. I am a veteran cancer patient,” he says. “[I] just wanted to get [the surgery] done.”

What are the symptoms of penile cancer?

Penile cancer is relatively rare: it is diagnosed in 1 in 100,000 men each year, and accounts for less than 1% of male cancers in South Africa. While small, dark bumps on the penis is one of the most common symptoms of penile cancer, other symptoms include darkening of skin or a change in skin texture, swelling, an open sore, or crusty bumps.

In addition to being rare, penile cancer is also relatively treatable: if caught early, the 5-year survival rate is about 85%. Yet because of the stigma associated with penile cancer, many men delay seeing a doctor if they exhibit symptoms, leading to their cancer being discovered at a later (and more serious) stage.

Related: 5 Scary Things That Happen to Your Penis When You Age

What causes penile cancer?

One of the most common causes of such cancer is the human papilloma virus, or HPV, says Dr Anthony Rossi, dermatologic and Mohs Micrographic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who biopsied William’s bumps. Approximately 80% of all South Africans will contract HPV at some point in their lives.

Other risk factors include not being circumcised, age (with 4/5 men being diagnosed over the age of 55), and a history of smoking.

How is penile cancer treated?

In the past, squamous cell carcinoma like the type found on William’s penis would have required a partial or full penectomy (i.e., removal of that portion of the penis), says Dr Ross Radusky, a board-certified dermatologist who worked with William.

Fortunately, penile squamous cell carcinoma can now be treated with a penis-preserving, minimally invasive surgery called MOHS micrographic surgery. During surgery, the surgeon removes the skin where the cancer is layer-by-layer. Each layer is then biopsied in the office until a cancer-free layer is discovered.

Related: 8 Steps to Prevent Prostate Cancer

While not new at all to treat skin cancers on the face and body, the MOHS technique “is now sparing our patients from having to lose part or all of their penis,” says Radusky.

When William underwent MOHS surgery, the procedure took about three hours. The surgery was simple: “no problem, no pain,” he says. Recovering from the surgery was also relatively easy: he had to change his bandages daily for a few weeks, wash with soap and water, and apply Vaseline to his penis.

As for his sex life, “I was told I couldn’t have sex for a couple weeks, but after that I was instructed to wear a condom until I was totally healed,” he says. After the eight-week recovery period, William’s sex life “wasn’t affected at all.”

What should men do if they see bumps on their penis?

The key to surviving penile cancer and avoiding a total penectomy is catching it early. So if you feel or see something on your penis, seek treatment immediately. “If what you found does not go away in two weeks, see a doctor,” says Rossi.

“Make an appointment with your dermatologist and get it checked out. Don’t wait,” William urges. “My experience was not as bad as you would think.”

*Last name has been withheld to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.

Originally published on menshealth.com

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