Urethral Cancer FAQ

Q: What is urethral cancer?

A: Urethral cancer is a rare type of cancer that starts in the urethra.

The urethra is a tube that carries urine from the bladder to an opening on the outside of the body. In women, the urethra is about 1-1/2 inches long, reaching from the bladder to an opening above the vagina. In men, the urethra is about eight inches long. It passes through the prostate and the penis to an opening on the glans, or the tip of the penis.

Q: How is urethral cancer treated?

A: Treatment for urethral cancer is either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control the cancer cells in a specific area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. A patient may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments:

  • Surgery. The goal of surgery is to remove the tumor from the urethra, while leaving as much of the urethra as possible intact.

  • Radiation therapy. The goal of radiation is to kill cancer cells by using powerful X-rays. This treatment is used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to treat any remaining cancer cells after surgery. If surgery is not possible, radiation may be used alone to treat the symptoms of urethral cancer.

  • Chemotherapy. The goal of chemotherapy is to shrink the cancer when it has spread to other parts of the body.

Doctors are always looking for new ways to treat urethral cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, a person should ask his or her doctor if there are any clinical trials he or she should consider.

Q: What are the risk factors for urethral cancer?

A: Certain factors can make one person more likely to get urethral cancer than another. These are called risk factors. However, just because a person has one or more risk factors does not mean he or she will get urethral cancer. In fact, a person can have all of the risk factors and still not develop cancer. On the other hand, a person can have no known risk factors and get urethral cancer.

Since urethral cancer is not common, it can be hard for the doctors to identify risk factors for the disease. The following are possible risk factors for urethral cancer:

  • Chronic irritation or inflammation of the urethra

  • Repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs)

  • Other cancers of the urinary tract, including bladder cancer

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Q: What are the symptoms of urethral cancer?

A: Urethral cancer can be a silent disease, with no symptoms at all during the early stages. Patients with urethral cancer may eventually develop any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Lump or growth on the urethra

  • Urethral discharge or bleeding, or blood in the urine

  • Urinating often or feeling an urge to urinate without passing much urine

  • Pain, low flow, or dribbling while urinating

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area

It is important to remember that all of these symptoms can be caused by many other medical problems. If a person has any of these symptoms, he or she should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Q: What are clinical trials?

A: Clinical trials are studies of new kinds of cancer treatments. Doctors conduct clinical trials to learn about how well new treatments work and what their side effects are. If they look promising, they are then compared to the current treatment to see if they work better or have fewer side effects. People who participate in these studies may benefit from access to new treatments before the FDA approves them. Participants also help further our understanding of cancer and help future cancer patients.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion, including if the person is not comfortable with the treatment decision, if the type of cancer is rare, if there are different ways to treat the cancer, or if the person is not able to see a cancer expert.

Q: How can someone get a second opinion?

A: There are many ways to get a second opinion:

  • Ask a primary care doctor. He or she may be able to recommend a specialist, such as a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these doctors work together at cancer centers or programs.

  • Call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service. The number is 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237). This service has information about treatment facilities, including cancer centers and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • Seek other options. Patients can get names of doctors from their local medical society, a nearby hospital, a medical school, or local cancer advocacy groups, as well as from other people who have had that type of cancer.