Urine stored in the bladder passes outside the body through a tube called the urethra. It is a short tube that passes through the vagina in women, but is longer in men, running through the penis. Urethral cancer is a rare form of cancer that affects the cells and glands lining the urethra. It is more common in women, over the age of 60.
Repeated inflammation or infection of the urethra may cause these cells to turn cancerous and multiply. Those with a previous history of genito-urinary tract diseases, such as bladder cancer, urethral stricture disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or repeated urinary tract infections (UTI), have a higher risk of developing urethral cancer. The human papilloma virus (HPV) has also been associated with the condition.
Early stages of the cancer may not show any signs or symptoms. However, as the cancer progresses, you may feel a lump in the area (penis or groin) or have blood in the urine, difficulty or frequent urination, incontinence or discharge from the urethra.
It is necessary to visit your doctor if you have the above symptoms as they are common to many urological conditions. Your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history and perform a thorough physical examination. A cystoscope (a lighted tube) may be used to view the urethra for abnormalities. A biopsy may be performed to obtain suspicious tissue for examination under the microscope. If cancer is discovered, other tests (CT, MRI and bone scans, and chest X-ray) are conducted to determine how far the tumour has invaded the surrounding tissues or whether it has metastasised (spread) to other parts of the body.
Treatment depends on the type of cell, location of the tumour and extent of metastasis. Superficial cancers may be treated by electro cautery (a source of electric current is inserted into the urethra to kill the cancer cells). Your doctor may advise surgery to treat tumours with significant invasion of the surrounding tissues. It may involve the removal of a part or entire penis, prostate and bladder in men, and a part of the vagina and bladder in women. An alternate means for draining and passing urine may need to be created. Affected lymph nodes are removed. Chemotherapy (using cancer-killing drugs) and radiation therapy (using high intensity radiations) may also be suggested either alone or with surgery to treat advanced urethral cancer.