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The treatment options for penile cancer are based mainly on the stage (extent) and grade of the cancer, but other factors can also be important. Here are the most common treatment options based on the stage of the cancer.
Stage 0 includes 2 types of tumors: carcinoma in situ (CIS) and verrucous carcinoma. Both of these tumors are only in the top layers of skin. There are some different treatment options.
Patients with CIS that's only on the foreskin can often be treated with circumcision. If the tumor is in the glans and doesn't affect other tissues, it might be treated with a type of local therapy (laser ablation, topical 5-FU or imiquimod, or cryotherapy). Other options might include some type of surgery, such as glansectomy, Mohs surgery, or wide local excision.
Verrucous carcinoma can often be treated with laser therapy, Mohs surgery, wide excision, or cryotherapy. Only rarely will a partial penectomy be needed.
These tumors have grown below the skin of the penis but not into deeper layers.
Options for treatment may include circumcision (for tumors confined to the foreskin) or a more extensive surgery (Mohs surgery, wide excision, glansectomy, or removal of part of the penis). Radiation therapy or laser ablation in a clinical trial may also be an option.
Stage II penile cancer includes tumors that have grown deep into the tissues of the penis (such as the corpus spongiosum or cavernosum) or the urethra, but have not spread to nearby lymph nodes.
These cancers are usually treated with a partial or total penectomy, with or without surgery to remove the lymph nodes. A less common approach is to use radiation as the first treatment followed by surgery. Radiation may also be used as the main treatment in men who can’t have surgery because of other health problems.
Some doctors recommend checking groin lymph nodes for cancer, even if they're not enlarged. This may be done with a sentinel lymph node biopsy or with a more extensive lymph node dissection. If the lymph nodes show cancer spread, then the cancer is not really a stage II. It's a stage III or IV (and is treated as such).
Stage III penile cancers have reached nearby lymph nodes in the groin. The main tumor may have grown into the deeper tissues of the penis (the corpus spongiosum or corpus cavernosum) or urethra, but has not grown into nearby structures like the bladder or prostate.
Stage III cancers are treated with a partial or total penectomy. In some cases, chemotherapy (chemo) or chemo plus radiation may be used first to shrink the tumor so that it's easier to remove with surgery.
An inguinal lymphadenectomy is also needed to remove lymph nodes in the groin. Radiation therapy to the groin may be used, too, either after surgery or instead of surgery in some cases. If lymph nodes are very large, chemo (with or without radiation) might be used as well.
These cancers can be hard to cure, so men may want to consider taking part in clinical trials of new treatments.
Stage IV penile cancer includes different groups of more advanced cancers.
In some stage IV cancers, the main tumor has grown into nearby tissues, like the prostate, bladder, scrotum, or abdominal (belly) wall. Treatment includes surgery, which is often a total penectomy. If the tumor is in the scrotum or parts of the abdominal wall, the testicles and/or the scrotum may also need to be removed. A new opening can be made in the abdomen or the perineum (space between the scrotum and anus) to allow urine to pass out of the body.
If the tumor has grown into the prostate or bladder, these may need to be removed, too. Chemo (sometimes with radiation) may be given before surgery to try to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove. The inguinal (groin) lymph nodes on both sides will be removed as well. This area may also be treated with radiation after surgery (unless it was given before surgery).
Stage IV also includes cancers that have spread more extensively in the lymph nodes, such as cancer in groin lymph nodes that has grown through the nodes and into nearby tissues or cancer that has spread to lymph nodes inside the pelvis. These cancers are treated with surgery to remove the main tumor in the penis, such as total penectomy.
The lymph nodes in both groin areas are also removed. The lymph nodes inside the pelvis will be removed if they're thought to contain cancer spread (if they are enlarged, for example). After the lymph nodes are removed, those areas may be treated with radiation to try to kill any cancer cells that may be have left behind. Chemo might be part of this treatment, too.
Penile cancer that has spread to distant organs and tissues is also stage IV. These cancers can’t be removed or destroyed completely with surgery and radiation. Treatment is aimed at keeping the cancer in check and preventing or relieving symptoms as much as possible. Choices to treat the penile tumor usually include wide local excision, penectomy, or radiation therapy.
Surgery or radiation therapy (sometimes along with chemo) may also be considered to treat nearby lymph nodes. Radiation may be used to treat cancer that has spread to the bones or to the brain or spinal cord.
Chemo is often used to treat cancer that has spread to other areas, like the lungs or liver.
Stage IV cancers are very hard to cure, so men may want to think about taking part in clinical trials of new treatments.
The treatment of cancer that comes back after treatment (recurrent cancer) depends on where the cancer comes back (recurs) and which treatments were used before. If penectomy was not done before, a recurrent penile cancer may be treated with surgical removal of part or all of the penis. Radiation therapy may also be an option. Surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy may be options for some cancers that recur in the lymph nodes. Chemo may also be helpful in treating penile cancers that come back in other parts of the body.
These tumors can be hard to treat, so men may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial of a newer treatment.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
National Cancer Institute. Penile Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. May 4, 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/penile/patient/penile-treatment-pdq on June 5, 2018.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Penile Cancer, Version 2.2018 -- March 26, 2018. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/penile.pdf on June 5, 2018.
StatPearls. Engelsgjerd JS, LaGrange CA. Cancer, Penile. Accessed at www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.proxy.library.emory.edu/books/NBK499930/ on June 5, 2018.
Last Revised: June 25, 2018