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Last Updated: March 20, 2018

Prostate Cancer

Overview

Prostate cancer is cancer of the cells of the prostate, which is a small walnut-shaped gland below the urinary tract and in front of the rectum. The prostate organ is part of the male reproductive system, and is responsible for producing some of the fluid that nourishes and helps transport sperm. Prostate cancer is not to be confused with benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH) or “enlarged prostate”. BPH is an age-related growth of the prostate that is unrelated to cancer.  

prostate highlighted beneath urinary bladder (lateral view)

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men in the United States, with an estimated one out of seven men becoming diagnosed. The great majority of prostate cancers are adenocarcinomas, meaning they began in gland cells. Prostate tumors grow slowly and may not be diagnosed until later in life (over the age of 65). In some cases, this cancer remains asymptomatic during a person’s entire lifetime.

Prostate cancer is treatable if detected early. However, aggressive or advanced forms of the cancer can spread to other organs (metastasize), or lead to erectile dysfunction and incontinence.

Causes and Risk Factors

During each round of cell division random errors, or mutations, can occur in the DNA of prostate cells. While some mutations are inconsequential, others allow cells to escape the mechanisms that control cell growth, leading to tumor formation. While the detailed mechanisms leading to cancer onset are not known, the following risk factors increase the likelihood of developing the disease:

Symptoms

The close proximity of the prostate with respect to the bladder, urethra, and the nerves of erectile function helps explain many of the prostate cancer symptoms. The list includes:

Diagnosis

prostate lateral cross section showing urethra

The following tests are used to screen and diagnose prostate cancer:

Following a positive diagnosis, various tests and imaging techniques are performed to “stage” the cancer and determine the extent of metastasis (or spread) beyond the prostate gland. Adenocarcinomas are typically staged from 1-4 (represented as Roman numerals I-IV).

Treatment

Treatment options vary per case and depend on the patient’s age, overall health, symptoms, and cancer stage. Because prostate tumors grow slowly, some patients are monitored and never require actual treatment. The following treatments are available for prostate cancer:

Prevention

Men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some medical organizations recommend routine prostate cancer screening for men over the age of 40. Those with a family history of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers can discuss screening options for prostate cancer with their doctor.

Sources

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD