Prostate cancer: The basics

Stacey King
Man In Consultation, Dialogue
Man In Consultation, Dialogue

Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer among men and each year in the UK around 36,000 men are diagnosed with the disease. In fact, it accounts for 25 per cent of all newly diagnosed cases of cancer in men.

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The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located in the pelvis of men. Prostate cancer does not normally causes any symptoms until the tumour has grown large enough to put pressure on the urethra - then the initial problems experienced are usually involved with urination.

These can include needing to pee more regularly (often during the night), needing to rush to the toilet, having difficulty in starting to urinate (hesitancy), straining or taking a long time while weeing, a weak flow and/or feeling that your bladder has not emptied.

Having these symptoms does not definitely mean you have prostate cancer - there is a benign condition that causes similar issues - but it's important to get checked out.

Risk factors
Cancer occurs when something affects our cells and causes them to grow in an uncontrolled manner. The cause of prostate cancer is unknown but risk factors have been identified.

Age is the primary factor, with those over 50 at greatest risk and danger increasing with age. Ethnicity is a factor too. The disease is relatively common among men of African and Afro-Caribbean descent - but rare among those of Asian and South/Central American descent.

Family history appears to play a role, so that men with a father, brother or uncle who have suffered are more likely to get the disease. Also men with close female relatives who have suffered from breast cancer are at risk.

Finally there may be links between prostate cancer and obesity and/or lack of exercise. Obese men suffer more and men who exercise a lot suffer less. Men who eat a lot of foods containing lycopene and selenium (tomatoes/red fruit and Brazil nuts respectively) have been shown to be less likely to suffer.

Your doctor is likely to test you for the illness in several ways. A urine test for infection, a blood test for an elevated level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and a digital (finger) rectal examination. Although sometimes uncomfortable, the procedure should not be painful. If the results of the previous tests are positive your doctor may then refer you for a biopsy, to provide a more reliable assessment of whether you have cancer.

For many patients who have been identified as having prostate cancer, no treatment is given. This is because the illness is not always fast-growing and often presents no immediate health risk. If you fall into this category then the cancer will be monitored with regular hospital visits for blood tests and examinations. Many cases never go beyond this stage.

But if the condition does advance then treatment will be provided by a multi-disciplinary team - with options including surgery, radiotherapy, hormonal therapy and chemotherapy. Surgery for early prostate cancer can involve removing the prostate gland, which is mainly of benefit in fast-growing cases.

Slower-growing cases can benefit from radiotherapy treatment - which can be delivered by a number of methods. Hormonal therapy is then often provided to prevent cancer's return. Other treatments involving ultrasound and freezing cancer cells are being trialled but are not yet widespread. Chemotherapy is used when cancer has spread beyond the prostate.

The five-year survival rate for men with prostate cancer was more than 70 per cent in the most-recent NHS figures. This has increased dramatically from around 30 per cent back in 1971 - and new technologies and increased awareness promise to increase it even further.