What is Urethral Cancer?

Cancer of the urethra is very rare, but it occurs more often in men than in women.

Anatomical illustration of the genitourinary system
A closer look at the urethra and the genitourinary system.

The urethra, part of the urinary tract, is the tube through which urine passes as it leaves the body. In women, the urethra is about 1.5 inches long and is just above 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.

Urethral cancer is classified according to the cell type in which it begins:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common urethral cancer. It begins in the flat cells lining the urethra that are near the bladder in women and in the lining of the urethra in the penis in men.
  • Transitional cell carcinoma forms in the cells found in the area of the urethral opening in women and near the prostate gland in men.
  • Adenocarcinoma begins in the cells that make and release mucus and other fluids.

Metastatic Urethral Cancer

When urethral cancer spreads beyond the urethra, it is considered metastatic disease. At this point, the cancer becomes more difficult to treat. The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue: Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system: Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood: Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. If urethral cancer spreads to the bladder, the cancer cells in the bladder are actually urethral cancer cells. The disease is metastatic urethral cancer, not bladder cancer.


As with most cancers, early detection is the best way to combat this disease. It’s important to know the possible symptoms, especially if you have a history of bladder cancer. Seek your physician’s advice if you have:

  • Bleeding from the urethra or blood in the urine
  • Weak or interrupted, stop-and-go urine flow
  • Frequent urination
  • A lump or thickness in the perineum or penis
  • Discharge from the urethra
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the groin area