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Primary Urethral Carcinoma With Nodal Metastasis

The presentation of a fungating penile mass often indicates penile carcinoma, but providers should be aware of urethral carcinoma in the differential diagnosis.

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Primary urethral carcinoma (PUC) is a rare but morbid disease, representing < 1% of all urologic malignancies.1 Up to one-third of male patients may present with nodal metastases.2-4 The overall survival (OS) for all male PUC is < 50% at 5 years and is lower still in patients with nodal involvement.4

Although surgical intervention, including radical resection, has been a mainstay in disease management, the presence of high-stage disease may warrant multimodal treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Recent series have described success with neoadjuvant and adjuvant chemoradiation, yet the optimal regimen remains unestablished.5,6 Although nodal disease is commonly encountered with proximal, high-stage tumors, this case exhibits a rare presentation of a distal fungating penile mass with low pathologic stage but rapid progression to nodal disease.

Case Presentation

A male veteran aged 77 years with a history of diabetes mellitus and stroke presented with obstructive urinary symptoms, gross hematuria, and 15-pound weight loss. Examination revealed a distal penile mass with purulent exudate at the meatus but no inguinal lymphadenopathy. Two fragments of this mass detached during office cystoscopy, and pathology revealed high-grade urothelial cell carcinoma (UCC). A magnetic resonance image of the pelvis with and without IV contrast revealed a 2.4-cm tumor in the glans penis with possible extension into the subcutaneous connective tissue of the penis and penile skin, without invasion of the corpora cavernosa/spongiosum or lymphadenopathy (Figure 1).

The patient was lost to follow-up for 2 months but returned with worsening obstructive symptoms. A restaging computed tomography scan of the abdomen and pelvis revealed enlargement of a single right inguinal lymph node to 1.4 cm, and chest imaging was negative for metastasis (Figure 2).

Prostatic urethral and random bladder biopsies, bilateral retrograde pyelograms, and selective ureteral washings revealed no abnormalities or signs of disease. Percutaneous biopsy of the inguinal node confirmed metastatic UCC. The patient underwent radical penectomy, creation of a perineal urethrostomy, and suprapubic cystostomy tube placement. Negative margins were confirmed on the urethral stump and corpus spongiosum. Final pathology revealed high-grade UCC with squamous differentiation on hematoxylin and eosin staining, arising from the penile urethra, invading the glans and corpus spongiosum, with no invasion of the corpus cavernosa (Figures 3 and 4).

Immunohistochemical stains were performed and strongly positive for cytokeratin 7 and p63. Final pathologic stage was described as pT2N1, with negative margins, indicating an American Joint Committee on Cancer classification of Stage III disease.7 The patient was referred postoperatively for adjuvant chemoradiation.

Due to the rarity of the condition, defined follow-up has not been established. The European Urologic Association recommends urinary cytology, cystourethroscopy, and cross-sectional imaging based on individual risk factors.8 Given the metastatic nature of this patient’s disease, we plan to follow up every 3 months for the first 2 years, then every 6 months.


The low incidence of PUC, coupled with a high morbidity/mortality rate, creates a difficult scenario in choosing the best oncologic management for this disease. National guidelines stratify treatment algorithms by stage and location of primary tumor, as these were found to be the 2 most important prognostic factors for men.1 The location of the primary tumor is most often in the bulbomembranous urethra, but up to one-third occur in the pendulous urethra.2

A recent review reported that UCC is the most common histologic subtype.4 When considering the differential diagnosis, a distal penile mass may represent a malignant penile lesion, such as squamous cell carcinoma, Buschke-Lowenstein tumor, Kaposi sarcoma, or precancerous lesions. Additional benign and infectious disorders include epidermoid and retention cysts, leukoplakia, balanitis xerotica obliterans, condyloma acuminatum, chancre/chancroid, lymphogranuloma venereum, granuloma inguinale, and tuberculosis. Clinical workup typically includes physical examination, cystourethroscopy and biopsy, chest X-ray, and pelvic/abdominal cross-sectional imaging.9,10 Magnetic resonance imaging of the abdomen and pelvis is ideal in identifying soft tissue structures and extension of tumor.

In male patients with PUC, nodal metastases are commonly seen at initial presentation in up to one-third of patients, while distant metastases may be present in up to 6% at presentation.2-4 When tumors arise from the anterior urethra, the primary lymphatic drainage is first to the inguinal lymph nodes, whereas posterior tumors drain to the pelvic lymph nodes. A multivariate analysis of men with PUC within the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results database demonstrated an OS across all stages to be 46.2% and 29.3% at 5 and 10 years, respectively. Increased likelihood of death was predicted by advanced age, high grade/stage, systemic metastases, non-UCC histology, and the lack of surgery.4

Surgical intervention, including radical resection via penectomy, has been the mainstay in disease management and was first described by Marshall in 1957 for bulbar urethral cancer.11 In 1998, Gheiler and colleagues demonstrated that surgical resection alone yielded excellent outcomes in patients with low-stage disease with 89% of patients disease free at mean 42 months. This was in stark contrast to patients with advanced stage disease (T3 or N+) who exhibited a disease-free survival rate of 42% at the same follow-up interval and benefited from combined chemoradiation and surgical resection.3

In the presence of high-stage disease, multimodal therapy with chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery is warranted. A study in 2008 reviewed chemoradiation in which patients with PUC received a 5-week protocol of external beam radiotherapy to the genitals, inguinal/pelvic lymph nodes, plus an additional radiation bolus to the primary tumor.5 In the 18 patients reported, 15 had complete response to therapy, and only 4 patients required salvage surgical resection. The 7-year survival for the cohort was 72% with chemoradiation alone, with about half the population recurring or progressing at 7 years. However, all patients that avoided surgical resection went on to develop urethral strictures that required surgical therapy, 3 of which required complex reconstructive procedures.

To place this survival into context, the 1999 study by Dalbagni and colleagues reported a 5-year OS of 42% when surgical resection alone was performed in 40/46 men with PUC.2 Last, a large retrospective series of 44 patients reported mostly advanced-stage patients with PUC and analyzed patients treated with chemotherapy based on histologic pathology. The results demonstrated a 72% overall response rate to neoadjuvant chemotherapy, with a median OS of 32 months in patients undergoing chemotherapy vs 46 months in patients who underwent subsequent surgery. This study solidified that for patients with PUC involving the lymph nodes; optimal treatment includes neoadjuvant cisplatin-based chemotherapy followed by surgical resection.6

As medicine and oncologic therapies become more individualized, physicians are looking to new immunologic agents for systemic therapy. Immune checkpoint inhibitors were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for UCC of the bladder in 2016.12 Unfortunately, due to the rarity of PUC and the recent development of immune checkpoint inhibitors, there have been no published reports of these or other immunotherapies in PUC. However, given the histologic similarity and pathogenesis, checkpoint inhibitors may have a future indication in the systemic management of this disease.


This patient’s PUC represents a rare presentation of a distal urethral carcinoma, T2-staged tumor, with rapid progression to nodal metastases. Additionally, the presentation of a fungating penile mass would usually indicate penile carcinoma, but providers should be aware of urethral carcinoma in the differential diagnosis. Notably, the patient was found to have progression to lymph node involvement during a mere 2-month period.

Recent case series have published encouraging results with neoadjuvant chemotherapy or chemoradiation.5,6 However, radical resection in men with T2 to T4 disease is associated with significantly higher cancer-specific survival. Given our concern of a loss to follow-up, we felt that radical resection of the primary tumor and adjuvant chemoradiation represented the patient’s best oncologic outcomes. Therefore, he underwent radical penectomy and creation of a perineal urethrostomy. As of his 6-month follow-up, he showed no evidence of disease, had returned to his preoperative functional status, and was referred for chemoradiation.

Author disclosures
The authors report no actual or potential conflicts of interest with regard to this article.

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