Clinical PresentationThe ratio of male-to-female urethral cancers is believed to be 2:1. Differences in presentation between men and women are demonstrated in Table 1.
Male Urethral CancerTypically presents in middle-aged men in their 40's or later. Upwards of 50% present with urethral stricture disease and 25% have a history of sexually transmitted infection -- HPV (human papilloma virus) 16 plays a role in the formation of SCC (squamous cell carcinoma) of the urethra. Greater than 95% of men are symptomatic with symptoms including: urethral bleeding, palpable urethral mass or obstructive voiding. The symptoms are often slowly progressive, starting with minor symptoms and progressing to major problems -- making early diagnosis a challenge.
Female Urethral CancerUrethral cancer is even more rare in women and usually affects women in their 40-50's. The list of etiologies or related-factors is larger for women and includes: leukoplakia, chronic irritation, caruncles, polyps, parturition, viral infection (HPV) and urethral diverticula (5%) may be related to adenocarcinoma. Similar to men, >95% of women are symptomatic at presentation with symptoms including: obstructive symptoms (urinary retention is rare in women and malignancy should always be considered in this circumstance), dysuria, urethral bleeding, urinary frequency and/or a palpable urethral mass.
Histology and PathologyUrethral cancers are usually urothelial cancers (TCC, transitional cell cancer), SCC or rarely adenocarcinoma. The prevalence of disease and histology varies by sex and location of tumor.
Male Urethral CancerOverall, 80% of urethral cancers in men are SCC with urothelial cancer (15%) and adenocarcinoma (5%) rounding out the remainder of tumors. Proximal tumors in men are most likely to be urothelial in origin, with rates of SCC increasing with distance from the bulbar urethra (Figure 1).
|Figure 1. Adapted from Cambell-Walsh Urology.|
Female Urethral Cancer
|Figure 2. Adapted from Cambell-Walsh Urology.|
Patterns of SpreadUrethral cancers can be locally invasive and spread into the soft tissues surrounding the urethra.
Male Urethral Cancer
|Patterns of lymphatic spread are analagous for male and|
female urethral cancer: anterior tumors drain to the
superficial and deep inguinal lymph nodes, posterior
tumors drain to the pelvic lymph nodes.
Female Urethral CancerUrethral cancers of the female urethra can grow directly into the vulva (skin) of the external genitalia, or when more proximal, invade into the vagina or bladder. Analagous to male drainage patterns, tumors of the anterior urethra (and labia) drain to the superficial and deep inguinal lymph nodes while tumors of the posterior urethra drain to the external and internal iliac lymph nodes. Similar to men, most palpable nodes (90%) are malignant.
Diagnosis, Evaluation and StagingDiagnosis, Evaluation and Staging are identical for men and women and should include:
- Exam under anesthesia
- Bimanual examination
- External genitalia
- Transurethral or needle biopsy
- Cytology is NOT reliable for SCC
- Imaging: CT or MRI
- Abdomen, pelvis to include the genitals and inguinal region.
- Chest radiography
Primary Tumor (T)
Regional Lymph Nodes (N)
Distant Metastases (M)
- While epidemiology, etiology and treatment of male and female urethral cancer is different, the evaluation and staging are very similar.
- SCC is the most common histology in both men (80%) and women (50-70%).
- 20-33% of patients will have positive lymph nodes at presentation.
- ≥90% of palpable nodes are malignant.
- The anterior urethra drains to inguinal nodes, posterior urethra to pelvic nodes.
- Evaluation should involve:
- Thorough physical examination
- Cystoscopy and biopsy
- Adequate staging by imaging (CT or MRI) +/- chest imaging
- Staging is identical for male and female urethral cancers.
Sharp, Angermeier. Surgery of Penile and Urethral Carcinoma. In: Wein AJ, Kavoussi LR, Partin AW, Peters CA, Novick AC, editors. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2012. chapter 35, Pages 934-955. Eds, Wein, Kavoussi, Novick, Partin and Peters.
 Swartz MA, Porter MP, Lin DW,et al: Incidence of primary urethral carcinoma in the United States. Urology 2006; 68: 1164-1168.
 Gheiler EL, Tefilli MV, Tiguert R,et al: Management of primary urethral cancer. Urology 1998; 52: 487-493.
 Rajan N, Tucci P, Mallouh C,et al: Carcinoma in female urethral diverticulum: case reports and review of management. J Urol 1993; 150: 1911-1914