Urethral Cancer

What is urethral cancer?

Urethral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the tube that carries urine out of the bladder. In women, the urethra is about 1 1/2 inches long and the opening is close to 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. Growths of cancer cells are called tumors.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of urethral cancer is not known. It is more common in people who have had bladder cancer or infections such as:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea or human papillomavirus (HPV)

It is also more common in women, and in people who are age 60 or older.

What are the symptoms?

In the early stages, you may not have symptoms. As the cancer progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Blood or pus in the urine
  • Pain when you urinate
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Trouble starting to urinate
  • Weak flow or stop-and-go flow of urine
  • Lump in the groin area

Men may have a lump in the penis.

What is metastasis?

The spread of cancer cells from one part of the body to other parts is called metastasis. What causes cancer to spread is not known. Cancer cells can:

  • Grow into the area around the tumor
  • Travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymph system. The lymph system is part of your body’s system for fighting infection. The lymph system consists of lymph nodes that store blood cells (lymphocytes) to fight infection and vessels that carry fluid, nutrients, and wastes between your body and your bloodstream.

New tumors then grow in these other areas. When urethral cancer spreads, it most often spreads to the nearby tissues. In men, it may spread to the penis or the prostate gland. In women, it may spread to the vagina or uterus. Urethral cancer can also spread to the brain, lungs, bones, and liver.

Sometimes your first symptoms of cancer are in the part of the body where the cancer has spread. The symptoms of urethral cancer that has spread to another part of your body depend on where the tumors are. For example:

  • If the cancer has spread to the lungs, you may have a cough or trouble breathing.
  • If the cancer has spread to the brain, you may have trouble talking or walking.
  • If the cancer has spread to the bones, you may have bone pain.
  • If the cancer has spread to the liver, you may have yellowish skin, pain, or swelling in your belly.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. X-rays may show tumors growing in other parts of your body. You may have other tests such as:

  • Cystoscopy, which uses a slim, flexible, lighted tube to look inside your urethra and bladder.
  • Biopsy, which may be done during a cystoscopy to take a small sample of tissue for testing
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the organs and bones of inside of your lower belly
  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests

You may need more lab tests and scans to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

How is it treated?

Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Surgery is the most common treatment for urethral cancer. If your urethra is removed, your healthcare provider will make a new way for the urine to pass from your body. If your bladder is also removed, you may need a urostomy. A urostomy is an opening through the skin in your belly when you need a new passageway for urine. After this procedure, your urine will collect in a bag and you will have to empty or change the bag several times a day.

Other possible treatments are:

  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with urethral cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you feel more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of radiation, hormone, or chemotherapy treatments recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous signs or symptoms or develop any new ones.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-29
Last reviewed: 2013-12-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

Patient Portal

Our Patient Portal provides safe and secure online access to better communicate with your Tufts Medical Center Community Care doctor. This easy-to-use web tool is a convenient way to book appointments, request referrals, renew prescriptions, view medical records/test results and communicate with your healthcare provider from the privacy of your own computer.

PATIENT PORTAL >