'I Had Penile Cancer. The Doctor Said He'd Chop My C*** Off'

Richard Stamp had never made an autobiographical show before. Then he got cancer – of the penis.
Richard Stamp: "I really didn’t think it was cancer because I’d never heard of penile cancer."
Dave Pickens
Richard Stamp: "I really didn’t think it was cancer because I’d never heard of penile cancer."

When Richard Stamp found out he had cancer – not just any kind, but cancer of the penis – he was in the middle of a work trip on the other side of the world, sitting in a room with an Australian consultant who he’d just met.

“I’m going to have to castrate your penis, Mr Stamp, it’s the only way,” the doctor was saying to him. He’s been reliving those words ever since.

Stamp, a performer and comic from south London, was on a tour of Asia when, in Cambodia, he first noticed the pea-sized lump on his penis.

“I really didn’t think it was cancer because I’d never heard of penile cancer,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I wasn’t ‘Doctor Googling’ it as, stupidly, I thought it must be something else. So by the time I was diagnosed, it was pretty terrifying really.”

He still recalls the big reveal. “He suddenly told me I had penis cancer. He suddenly told me he was going to chop my cock off. He suddenly told me I wouldn’t be able to be a man, or have sex, again. It was like he was dealing with a washing machine: ‘I’ve checked the filters but it’s no good, it’s all got to go.’”

Only it really didn’t – and Stamp has made a show about what happened next

Dick: One Man in 100,000 is part of Shipbuilding Festival, 10 days of shows at Rich Mix, hosted by Certain Blacks – each based on a real-life experience.

Stamp’s story opens the festival, which is hardly out of his comfort zone. This, a man who has toured his outdoor theatre and clowning shows all round the world; used to perform with The Levellers; and has even jumped off the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury (and lived to tell the tale).

It’s no spoiler to say that Stamp has survived cancer, too, But he wasn’t treated in Australia. Instead, he flew back to London where he found out that his local hospital, St George’s in Tooting, happened to be a world leader in penile cancer.

Just as well, because Stamp was struggling to deal with his diagnosis. “It was really hard to get my head around it, but I was in a lot of pain,” he says. “I couldn’t really pee, I wasn’t masturbating. The lump had gone from pea-sized to a cocktail sausage. So I knew something was wrong. It was a right mess.”


The cancer was rare – but not as rare as all that. The 1 in 100,000 of his show title is the number of people who are diagnosed, roughly equating to 400 cases a year. And the treatment? A penectomy or ‘partial’ removal of penis tissue.

Stamp actually remembers the hope he felt on hearing this explained by an NHS doctor. “There was a tumour, but the doctors told me they could save part of the penis: the internal workings and the urethra. They wouldn’t be taking my balls away. And I found out I could go on to have reconstruction. That was the first time I thought: oh right, I am going to have a serious operation, but I could go on to be okay.”

It was round this time he decided to make a show about it all, part prompted by a performer friend, Will, who had recently died of cancer himself, but not before telling Stamp he should start making more personal work. He didn’t think he was ready, but “cancer knew differently, it all aligned”, he jokes.

Stamp was used to performing things more surreal than “real”, but at least he had new material. First, the absolute fear before his operation, which involved circumcision as well as removing the tumour. “Being in the anaesthetist’s room about to go under. I was utterly frightened and wanted to escape,” he says. “But I knew that if I got up and tried to run, there would be no way out.”

Then, the aftermath. “When I woke up, I thought there was IPA being poured into my arm through the IV. I shouted that the guy over there (there wasn’t a guy) hadn’t had his steak and kidney pudding. I’d heard knives and forks, which must have been them operating. I said: “Do I have to do everything for myself over here?” and tried to get up. All the while, I’m being held down and my specialist is saying, ’Richard, it’s all gone well, you’re all right.’”

And it was. He’s been cancer free for three years now, and while recovery takes a long time, he says “you make small steps and need to mark them. You say things like: Two months ago, I couldn’t put jeans on. Now I can.”

Then there’s the awkward stuff. Six months after his penectomy, Stamp went in for a check up, accompanied by his grown-up daughter for moral support. Beforehand, he warned her the conversation might need to get personal.

“The doctor said: ‘Have you got any questions?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I have. I was told I would be able to masturbate and I haven’t tried. I’m a bit worried. Can I?’ And he looked at me, a bit embarrassed and said, ’Well, yeah, you should be able to. If you concentrate.’ And I said, thank you that’s all I need to know.”

In case you’re wondering, he did and he could. “I’ll tell you something, a bloke’s average is six seconds and a woman is 23 seconds. But I orgasmed for 18-20 seconds. So it’s improved! With reconstruction, maybe it will go down again.”


Reconstruction is the next step. The process will involve taking part of his arm and nerves to form the scaffold of the penis, Stamp explains, then parts of his stomach to replace the arm, tissue and parts of his leg to make the helmet.

“It’s quite scary really and I have thought, maybe I won’t bother. It can take quite a long to get over it. But going to the toilet isn’t so easy, so it would be nice to have something to piss out of. Sometimes I sit, sometimes I’ve stood up. I’ve even used a shewee, but, as you might know, they’re absolutely useless.”

In 2019, Stamp made a documentary for Channel 5 called Shopping for A New Penis, (“not my title,” he says), which sees him tell his story, while learning about the future of treatment for penile cancer, from reconstructive surgery and robotics to ongoing research at Virginia’s Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine into regrowing body parts from a patient’s own cells.

These medical technologies could not only help people in the same position as him, says Stamp, but also trans people, survivors of car accidents, and soldiers coming back from war zones. “You can just imagine the ward!” he says.

As part of the film, Stamp threw a “resurrection party” with family and friends after deciding that, yes, he would opt for reconstruction. He has three big operations ahead of him this year – one ten hours, one four hours, and one an hour – but before then, he’s undergoing laser hair removal on his arm, because, as he jokes, he doesn’t want “a hairy dick” at the end of it all.

Stamp has only praise for the UK surgeons and specialists helping him, which makes him realise again how “barbaric” the approach of the first consultant.

“It’s just dreadful how he treated me and how little he seemed to care. You shouldn’t be telling someone on their own that kind of news – here, you’d have a Macmillan nurse. I said going into the op was full on. But getting told about my cancer that way was one of the worst things ever to happen in my life.”

It’s helped him since to talk to fellow penile cancer survivors such as Wayne Earle, Australian founder of the Check My Tackle campaign, and Orchid, a charity fighting the big three male cancers: prostrate, testicular and penile.

As awareness of the first two grows, there’s still work to be done on the latter, Stamp says, not least among GPs who are not always as knowledgeable about it. But it’s improving – there’s now an international Penile Cancer Day on September 20, as well as a global conference led by the St. George’s team.

“The thing is, it doesn’t need to get to the place it got to with me,” says Stamp. “I’m very much a case of being wise after the thing’s happened. If I knew now what I knew before – that penile cancer is a possibility – I’d have quite confidently gone to my GP to ask: ‘Is this cancer?’

“So, if you find something, go to a doctor.”

Dick: One Man in 100,000 is at Rich Mix, London on February 19 as part of the Certain Blacks present Shipbuilding Festival, then touring into 2022.