About urethral cancer
What is urethral cancer?
Urethral cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the urethra.
The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside the body. In women, the urethra is about 1½ inches long and is just above the vagina. In men, the urethra is about 8 inches long, and goes through the prostate gland and the penis to the outside of the body. In men, the urethra also carries semen.
Urethral cancer is a rare cancer that occurs more often in women than in men. There are different types of urethral cancer that begin in cells that line the urethra. These cancers are named for the types of cells that become malignant (cancerous):
- Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of urethral cancer. It forms in cells in the part of the urethra near the bladder in women, and in the lining of the urethra in the penis in men.
- Transitional cell carcinoma forms in the area near the urethral opening in women, and in the part of the urethra that goes through the prostate gland in men.
- Adenocarcinoma forms in glands near the urethra in both men and women.
Urethral cancer can metastasize (spread) quickly to tissues around the urethra and is often found in nearby lymph nodes by the time it is diagnosed.
What are the symptoms for urethral cancer?
Bleeding from the urethra symptom was found in the urethral cancer condition
Urethral cancer can be difficult to detect in its earliest stages. That’s because some people will experience no symptoms until the cancer is more advanced.
As the cancer grows, both males and females may begin to notice these symptoms of urethral cancer:
- a growth or lump near or on the urethra
- Pain or bleeding when urinating
- difficulty emptying the bladder
Additional symptoms include:
- frequently urinating or feeling the need to urinate without passing urine
- low flow or dribbling when trying to urinate
- discharge or bleeding from the urethra
- trouble passing urine
- urinary incontinence (or an inability to control urine)
- enlarged lymph nodes in the groin, near the tumor
What are the causes for urethral cancer?
As with many cancers, it’s unclear what causes urethral cancer. The cancer develops when healthy cells begin to grow uncontrollably. These cells clump together and form a tumor. But why cells begin to grow wildly isn’t known.
However, researchers and doctors do know of some risk factors that increase a person’s chance of developing urethral cancer.
What are the treatments for urethral cancer?
Several treatments are available for urethral cancer. The best option for you depends on the type of urethral cancer you have, where it is, and what stage the cancer is.
Work closely with your doctor to understand your best option. Each of these treatments do have some risk of side effects. Select a treatment option that makes you feel confident and prepared for all possible outcomes.
Surgery is the most common treatment for urethral cancer. During surgery, a doctor can remove the tumor from either inside the urethra or from outside. They may also remove nearby lymph nodes if they’re impacted by the cancer.
This treatment targets and destroys cancer cells with beams of intense energy from outside your body. Radiation therapy can be used alone, but it’s frequently used with surgery or chemotherapy.
These anti-cancer drugs can be used prior to surgery to shrink the tumor and decrease the extent of surgery needed to treat the cancer. Chemotherapy can also be used after surgery to prevent the disease from coming back or if the cancer has spread beyond the primary tumor site.
Active surveillance is also an option for urethral cancer treatment. In fact, it’s a treatment that doesn’t require treatment — if the tumor isn’t causing any issues and doesn’t show signs of growing or spreading, your doctor may choose surveillance.
This is a common option for older adults with health issues that may complicate other types of treatment. If the tumor begins to change and show that it’s becoming more aggressive, then you may consider other treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:
- The stage and size of the cancer (whether it is in only one area or has spread to other areas).
- Where in the urethra the cancer first formed.
- The patient's general health.
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).
Treatment options depend on the following:
- The stage of the cancer and where it is in the urethra.
- The patient's sex and general health.
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred.
What are the risk factors for urethral cancer?
Factors that can increase the risk of ureteral cancer include:
- Increasing age. The risk of ureteral cancer increases with age. Most people diagnosed with this cancer are in their 70s and 80s.
- Previous bladder or kidney cancer. People who have been diagnosed with bladder cancer or kidney cancer have an increased risk of ureteral cancer.
- Smoking. Smoking tobacco increases the risk of ureteral cancer, as well as other urinary tract cancers, including kidney cancer and bladder cancer.
- Family history of cancer. Lynch syndrome, also called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), increases the risk of colon cancer and other cancers, including ureteral cancer. If you have a strong family history of cancer, discuss it with your doctor. Together you may decide whether to consider genetic testing for Lynch syndrome and other inherited cancer syndromes.