The link between HPV and penile cancer
Many of us have heard that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. However, most people are unaware of the link between HPV and cancer of the penis.
Penile cancer is rare in North America, particularly in men who were circumcised as infants. However, it can be very serious, especially in later stages of the disease.
The exact cause of penile cancer is unknown. Most likely, multiple factors play a role. However, HPV is found in approximately half of all penile cancers.
HPV is very common and easily spread by skin-to-skin contact, usually entering the body through a cut, tear or abrasion in the skin. There are more than 100 varieties of HPV. Many types of HPV cause warts, although the body’s immune system often beats the virus before warts form. The location and appearance of the warts depends on the type of HPV infection. Genital HPV infections are contracted through sexual intercourse, anal sex or skin-to-skin contact in the genital area.
Scientists suspect that the proteins made by certain types of HPV interfere with the body’s natural tumor-suppression process. In addition to HPV infection, risk factors for penile cancer include tobacco use, chronic inflammation of the penis, age (penile cancer is more common in men over 60) and having AIDS.
Decrease your risk
You can decrease your risk of penile cancer by taking the following steps.
- Use a condom during sex (note: HPV can still be contracted by skin-to-skin contact, even if a condom is used)
- Limit your number of sexual partners, as this can decrease your exposure to HPV
- Stop smoking
- Keep the penis clean to decrease the likelihood of inflammation
- Get vaccinated for HPV
An HPV vaccine is available for men aged 9 to 26 and women aged 9 to 45. The vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, two types that have been linked to cancer of the penis, two types that cause genital warts and seven types that cause cervical cancer in women. Even if you’ve already been infected with one type of HPV, the vaccine can protect you from other types.
Currently, the HPV vaccine is available to grade five students in Alberta through a school-based immunization program.