Global Surge in Penile Cancer Cases Prompts Urgent Action

Dr. Thiago Camelo Mourão

In 2018, João, a 63-year-old pensioner from Brazil, noticed a wart on his penis and sought medical advice. What followed was a five-year ordeal of misdiagnoses and unsuccessful treatments before he received a devastating diagnosis in 2023: penile cancer.

“I started visiting medical clinics to find out what it was, but all the doctors told me it was due to excess skin and prescribed medication,” João recalls. Despite medication and repeated biopsies, the wart persisted, impacting his marriage and personal life significantly. “We were like siblings,” he confesses.

João’s case is not isolated. Penile cancer, though rare, is on the rise globally, with Brazil reporting one of the highest incidence rates at 2.1 cases per 100,000 men. Over the past decade alone, Brazil has recorded more than 21,000 cases, resulting in over 4,000 deaths and approximately 6,500 amputations, averaging two per day.

For João, the diagnosis meant undergoing partial amputation of his penis, a procedure he describes as emotionally devastating. “It’s something you never imagine will happen to you, and when it does, you can’t just go around telling people,” he laments. “Not having part of your penis is horrible.”

Penile cancer typically manifests with symptoms like non-healing sores, discharge, bleeding, and changes in the color of the penis. Early detection is crucial for successful treatment through surgical removal, radiotherapy, or chemotherapy. However, untreated cases may necessitate partial or total amputation of the penis.

Dr. Thiago Camelo Mourão from AC Camargo Cancer Center in São Paulo explains the implications of surgical interventions, highlighting the challenges patients face post-amputation. “In partial amputation, urine continues to exit through the penis,” he explains. “Total amputation requires relocating the urethral orifice, impacting daily functions.”

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a significant risk factor for penile cancer, transmitted through sexual contact. Vaccination against HPV is highly effective in preventing related lesions, yet Brazil’s vaccination rates remain suboptimal, with coverage below the recommended 90%.

Dr. Mauricio Dener Cordeiro of the Brazilian Society of Urology underscores the importance of vaccination and hygiene practices. “HPV infection and poor hygiene, including conditions like phimosis, increase the risk of penile cancer,” he warns.

Globally, penile cancer rates are rising, attributed partly to demographic shifts and lifestyle factors. Recent studies show increases in countries like England and Germany, reflecting a broader trend across Europe and developing nations.

João’s experience serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of early detection and preventive measures. Despite the challenges he faces, he remains hopeful. “I’m confident these tests will show I’ll be cured,” he says optimistically. “Now, following the amputation, the pain has eased, and I feel much better. But I’ll carry the impact of this disease for the rest of my life.”

Penile cancer, though rare, is a stark reminder of the critical need for awareness, vaccination, and proactive healthcare measures to combat its increasing prevalence globally.

This report sheds light on the personal impact of penile cancer while providing context on its rising incidence globally, emphasizing the importance of prevention and early detection strategies.