Penile cancer: ‘We need to talk about HPV and men’

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

December 19th, 2022

Gary Finnegan

‘HPV vaccines are offered to teenage girls and boys to prevent a range of cancers. Patrick Howard, who was diagnosed with penile cancer in 2020, is urging young people to embrace the vaccine and encouraging older men to have open conversations about male cancers’

‘I was shocked when the doctor told me I had penile cancer,’ Patrick recalls. ‘I had never heard of anyone having that kind of cancer and was not prepared for the unimaginable surgery that would follow.’

This was Patrick’s second cancer diagnosis. His first, prostate cancer in 2017, was picked up by a GP before he had any major symptoms. On that occasion, surgery to remove the prostate was successful and Patrick recovered. ‘It was uncomfortable, of course, but I had relatively few problems after the surgery and I was feeling fine within a few weeks.’


Fast forward three years to 2020. Restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 meant that Patrick and his wife were effectively in lockdown in their Liverpool home. But Patrick was experiencing some discomfort and genital itching. Access to in-person medical care was limited so he had some telephone consultations with a GP and was advised to try a cream to alleviate the itching.

The local hospital had taken over Patrick’s prostate cancer follow-up care so he had the opportunity to ask their advice. His GP then referred him to a surgeon who said an urgent operation was needed. ‘One week later, I had a partial penectomy, losing most of my penis,’ Patrick says. ‘Everything happened quickly. After a few days in hospital, I was home, dealing with the beginning of a new reality for me and my family.’

This was followed by surgery to remove lymph nodes in the pelvic area, a dangerous bout of sepsis, radiotherapy and then chemotherapy. ‘They threw everything at it,’ he told Vaccines Today. ‘I wouldn’t be here today without the surgeons and specialists who treated me.’

Raising awareness of penile cancer

While Patrick’s condition is considered incurable, he feels generally well and has packed 2022 with holidays in Greece, France and Portugal, as well as camping trips in England. He also addressed the European Cancer Summit in Brussels organised by the European Cancer Organisation. It was an opportunity to share his story in the hope of raising awareness of penile cancer and advocate for vaccination. Around 60% of penile cancers, including Patrick’s, are caused by human papillomaviruses (HPV). Most people are exposed to these viruses at some stage in their lives, putting them at risk of several genitourinary cancers.

A growing number of European countries offer HPV vaccination to boys
A growing number of European countries offer HPV vaccination to boys

Patrick says that while there has been some improvement in awareness of HPV-related cancers, particularly cervical cancer, there is too little attention devoted to men’s cancers.

He told the European Cancer Summit that medical schools should do more to ensure health professionals recognise the signs of penile cancer. Addressing this is important, not only to improve timely detection of disease, but also to highlight the risk of HPV infection for men.

‘Nobody wants to talk about penile cancer,’ Patrick says. ‘We don’t discuss the disease, penectomy surgery, or the emotional impact on men and their families. We need the conversation about male cancers to be as normal as breast cancer conversations.’

Experts hope that efforts to improve HPV vaccine uptake in adolescents could eliminate cervical cancer as a public health concern within a generation, effectively stopping the spread of penile cancer and other anogenital diseases in the process. Most European countries offer free HPV vaccination, but some have yet to extend the prevention programme to boys.

‘I would actively encourage HPV vaccine rollout for boys and girls across Europe,’ says Patrick. ‘HPV can affect anyone, but we already have a way to prevent it through vaccination. It’s not a moonshot; it’s just a shot in the arm.’