Penile cancer

Radiation therapy

Penile cancer

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Radiation therapy is a way of treating cancers using X-rays or other types of radiation. It is also known as radiotherapy.

The two main types of radiation therapy are external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy. 

What you need to know

Radiation therapy for penile cancer

Radiation therapy may be used in different ways to treat penile cancer, including:

To the penile cancer

  • when surgery isn’t possible, or the person refuses to have surgery

To the lymph nodes

  • after surgery to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back
  • if the cancer is advanced to slow its growth and control symptoms.

Radiation therapy for penile cancer is usually external beam radiation therapy but may occasionally be brachytherapy.

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses beams of X-rays or other radiation to treat cancer from outside the body. The beams are produced by a large machine called a linear accelerator.

There are several different types of EBRT. Most involve having treatment 5 days a week for a number of weeks. Others only need a small number of treatments.

Before starting radiation therapy you will go to a simulation or planning session to work out how you will be positioned for treatment.

When you go for each treatment, most of the time is used to set you up in the right position. The actual radiation beam is only on for a few minutes.

EBRT is not painful and you won’t feel anything during the treatment. You will hear some buzzing noises and the machine will move around you but it won’t touch you. The radiation therapist can see and hear you throughout the treatment.


Brachytherapy treats cancers by using small radiation sources inside the body, or on or near the skin. Each source is slightly smaller than a grain of rice. When brachytherapy is used inside the body, it is sometimes called internal radiation therapy.

For some patients, the radiation source is put in place for a short time and then removed. For others, the radiation sources are put in the body and left there permanently. These patients can go home once the sources are in position. 

The radiation oncology team

Health professionals who work as part of the radiation oncology team include:

  • radiation oncologist
  • radiation therapist
  • radiation oncology nurse
  • medical physicist.

What to ask or talk about

Side effects of radiation therapy for penile cancer

Most men will get some side effects with radiation therapy for penile cancer.

These can include:

To the penis

  • hard woody penis
  • scar tissue narrowing of the urethra
  • redness and other skin changes in the treatment area
  • peeling of the skin
  • tenderness and swelling of the area
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • nausea
  • erection problems, depending on the area being treated.

To the lymph nodes

  • lymphoedema
  • redness and other skin changes in the treatment area
  • peeling of the skin
  • tenderness and swelling of the area
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • nausea.

There may also be a risk of developing lymphoedema in the legs if radiation therapy is used to treat lymph nodes in the groin.

Will I be radioactive?

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) does not make patients radioactive.

Brachytherapy patients can be radioactive while they are receiving treatment. Those who go home with radioactive sources in their body will give out a very small amount of radiation which reduces over time.

Some other types of radiation therapy can also make patients radioactive for a time after treatment.

Radiation can be a risk to pregnant women, babies and small children. If you are having a treatment where you may be radioactive, your doctor or nurse will tell you what safety precautions to take.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Preparing for radiation therapy

Before radiation therapy, you will need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to and the possible side effects. 

Some things you should know are:

  • whether you need any tests before starting radiation therapy
  • if you need to change your diet or medications
  • when you have to be there
  • if you need to have time off work
  • if you will be able to drive after radiation therapy.
If you smoke, you should stop before starting treatment as your risk of complications is higher.

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