The prostate gland is part of the male reproductive system (see the picture below). The prostate makes a fluid that mixes with sperm and other fluids during ejaculation. A normal prostate is about the size of a walnut.
Prostate cancer is when abnormal cells grow in the prostate gland. Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in men. Most types of prostate cancer grow slowly, but some types can be aggressive. This means the cancer grows quickly and can spread to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, doctors say the cancer has "metastasized."
Prostate cancer, especially in its early stages, often does not have any symptoms. Symptoms are more likely to appear as the cancer grows.
Tell your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes prostate cancer, but they do know that certain things may increase your risk for developing prostate cancer.
The risk factors for prostate cancer include:
A prostate cancer screening is a test that your doctor uses to look for prostate cancer before you have any symptoms.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommend against routine prostate cancer screening for all men, regardless of age. Learn why.
Prostate screening tests include:
If you choose to be screened for prostate cancer, most doctors will recommend that you have both screening tests. It’s important to remember that these tests only help your doctor determine whether your prostate is healthy. An abnormal screening test result does not mean that you have cancer.
If your screening test results are abnormal, your doctor may recommend other tests to determine whether you actually have cancer. Those tests may include:
Ultrasound: A transrectal ultrasound provides your doctor with an image of your prostate. During the test, your doctor will insert a small probe into your rectum. This probe sends out sound waves (called ultrasound) that bounce off your prostate gland. A computer uses the sound waves to create an image of your prostate.
Biopsy: A transrectal biopsy is when your doctor removes a very small piece of your prostate to check it for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only 100% sure way to diagnose prostate cancer. During the biopsy, your doctor will insert a needle through your rectum and into your prostate. The needle collects tissue from your prostate. Your doctor may take tissue samples from several different areas of your prostate.
If your biopsy is normal, you do not have prostate cancer. Talk to your doctor about whether another condition may have caused your symptoms or your high PSA level. Ask your doctor about how often you should have checkups.
If your biopsy results are positive for cancer, the next step is for your doctor to grade and stage the cancer.
The treatment options for prostate cancer depend on your age, your overall health, and the grade and stage of your cancer. If you have prostate cancer, it is very important for your doctor to monitor the growth of your cancer carefully. Fast-growing tumors can quickly spread to other organs in the body, and this makes treatment much more difficult. But men who have slow-growing tumors may not need treatment for a long time, and some do not ever need treatment.
Common treatment options include the following:
During watchful waiting, you have no treatment, but you see your doctor often. During this time, your doctor will monitor the growth of your cancer through follow-up blood tests, rectal exams, and biopsies. If there's no sign the cancer is growing, you continue to have no treatment.
There are 2 types of radiation therapy. In one type, called external (beam) radiation therapy, radiation is given from a machine like an x-ray machine. In another type, called internal radiation therapy, radioactive pellets (called "seeds") are injected into the prostate gland. This is sometimes called seed therapy or brachytherapy (say: "brake-ee-ther-uh-pee"). Both types have about the same results in curing prostate cancer. Sometimes, both types are used together.
The external beam radiation therapy usually only takes about 10 minutes, but it is given 5 days a week over 6 to 8 weeks. Some people might find this time consuming. However, you don't need any anesthesia for this kind of treatment. The side effects are milder than the side effects that can occur with seed therapy.
Seed therapy can be done with just one hospital visit. For seed therapy, you’ll need to have anesthesia for a few minutes, but you should be able to go home right after the treatment. In seed therapy, higher doses of radiation can be put right into the cancer. You may feel more discomfort after this treatment.
Radical prostatectomy is a surgery to remove the whole prostate gland and the nearby lymph nodes. After the prostate gland is taken out through an incision, a catheter (a narrow rubber tube) is put through the penis into the bladder to carry urine out of the body until the area heals.
There are several different types of prostate surgery. Some are less invasive, and each type has different risks and recovery rates. Your doctor will help decide which type of surgery is the best option for you.
Your doctor will talk to you about the kind of anesthesia used during surgery. You may be given general anesthesia, which puts you into a sleep-like state. Or an epidural or spinal anesthesia may be given instead. This kind of anesthesia blocks nerve routes from the spine and numbs the area.
The purpose of hormone therapy is to lower the level of male hormones, called androgens, which are produced mostly in the testicles. Androgens, such as testosterone, help the prostate tumor grow. Shots or pills can be given over a period of several months, or the testicles can be surgically removed. Once the testosterone is out of your body, the prostate cancer usually shrinks and new growth slows down. Hormone treatments are often used in combination with other kinds of prostate cancer treatments.
Talk with your doctor about how often you will need follow-up PSA blood tests or other exams.
MayoClinic.com. Prostate Cancer. Accessed August 21, 2012
National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About Prostate Cancer. Accessed August 21, 2012
Prostate Cancer Foundation. Understanding Prostate Cancer. Accessed August 21, 2012
Treatment Options for Prostate Cancer: Evaluating the Evidence by V Bhatnagar, RM Kaplan (American Family Physician May 15, 2005, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20050515/1915.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff