Next to skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer among men. What exactly is prostate cancer? Prostate cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in a man’s prostate gland.

These cancers are generally very slow growing, but over time they can affect urinary symptoms. Rarely, advanced prostate cancers can spread outside of the prostate and infiltrate other tissues including lymph nodes and bone tissue.

I see prostate cancer most commonly in men older than 60. It usually grows slowly and can take years to grow large enough to cause problems. As with other cancers, treatment for prostate cancer works best when the cancer is found early.

Below are some of the things you should know about prostate cancer, including causes, symptoms, risk factors, how prostate cancer is diagnosed and treated, how you can reduce your risk, and more.

For starters, let’s talk about what the prostate is and what it does

What is the prostate? The prostate is an important organ in the male reproductive system. The prostate is positioned just below the bladder.

What does the prostate do? The prostate plays a role in the production and emission of semen. In young men, the prostate is about the size of a walnut. As men age, the prostate usually grows larger.

So, what causes prostate cancer?

The exact cause of prostate cancer is unknown. Most prostate cancers happen by chance, or due to shared environmental and common genetic factors. But what we do know is that prostate cancer happens when some prostate cells become abnormal.

Abnormal cells grow and multiply more quickly than normal cells. And as abnormal cells continue to accumulate, normal cells die and a tumor forms. That tumor can grow and spread to nearby tissue, and those abnormal cells can also spread to other parts of the body.

What are the signs and symptoms of prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages. In fact, most men don’t know they have prostate cancer until it is found during a regular medical exam. When unusual symptoms are noticed, they’re most often problems with urinating. But these same symptoms can also be caused by an enlarged prostate, so it’s important to talk with your doctor.

Typically, noticeable symptoms of prostate cancer don’t occur until the cancer has begun to spread beyond the prostate, or it’s metastasized to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. At this point, prostate cancer signs and symptoms can include:

  • Not being able to urinate at all
  • Having a hard time starting or stopping the flow of urine
  • Having to urinate often, especially at night
  • Having pain or burning during urination
  • You have difficulty having an erection
  • You have blood in your urine or semen
  • You have deep and frequent pain in your lower back, belly, hip or pelvis

Anytime you experience unusual symptoms – especially any of the symptoms mentioned above – make an appointment with your family doctor or urologist. They can talk with you about your symptoms, do a physical exam if necessary and work with you to create a treatment plan, if necessary.

What are common risk factors for prostate cancer?

As I mentioned earlier, I most commonly see prostate cancer in men over 60. And like many other types of cancer, prostate cancer risks increase as you get older. Other risk factors can include:

  • A family history of prostate cancer – If you have a close family member, such as a father or brother, with prostate cancer, you’re 2 to 3 times more likely than other men to develop prostate cancer (a lifetime risk of 25 to 30 percent).
  • Genetics – Many of my patients often ask if prostate cancer is hereditary. Hereditary prostate cancer does exist, but only 5 to 10 percent of all prostate cancers are hereditary due to a single inherited gene mutation.
  • Race – Black men are at a higher risk of prostate cancer than men of other races, and we’re not sure why.
  • Obesity – Obese men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer may be more likely to have an advanced cancer that’s more difficult to treat.

How is prostate cancer diagnosed?

The most common way to check for prostate cancer is to have a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. If your PSA is high, you may need a prostate biopsy to figure out the cause. A biopsy means that your doctor takes tissue samples from your prostate gland and sends them to a lab for testing.

How is prostate cancer treated?

Your treatment will depend on what kind of cancer cells you have, how far they have spread, your age and general health, and your preferences. At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, we approach cancer treatment by understanding the impact it has both physically and mentally. So, you and your doctor may decide to manage your cancer with active surveillance or to treat it with surgery or radiation.

If you’re over age 80 or have other serious health problems, like heart disease, you may choose not to have treatments to cure your cancer. Instead, you can just have treatments to manage your symptoms. This is called watchful waiting.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, choosing an oncologist or urologist can be confusing. Both urologists and oncologists have the specialty training and expertise to treat prostate cancer and can develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.

Can prostate cancer treatment affect your quality of life?

Your age and overall health will make a difference in how treatment may affect your quality of life. Any health problems you have before you’re treated, especially urinary, bowel or sexual function problems, will affect how you recover. Men can experience urinary incontinence or erectile dysfunction as a result of surgery or radiation therapy.

You can take action now to reduce your risk of prostate cancer later on

You can’t control your genes or what the future may hold. But you can take steps to reduce your risk of prostate cancer through lifestyle choices. For starters:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. A diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can contribute to your overall health.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise not only improves your physical health, but also your mood and mental health. Plus, there is some evidence that men who exercise are at a lower risk of developing prostate cancer.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a risk factor for prostate cancer.
  • Talk proactively with your doctor about your risk for prostate cancer. If you’re over 40 and haven’t discussed your risk level with your doctor or urologist, I suggest you make an appointment. Depending on your risk factors, you and your doctor can work together to create an action plan that works best for you, which may include a prostate cancer screening.

Also, if you’ve been experiencing any unusual urinary or erectile symptoms, don’t ignore them. Make a primary care appointment, for starters.

Your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms, answer your questions and recommend treatment next steps if needed. They may also recommend you see a urologist like me. Urologists are experts in urinary and male reproductive health, including prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment.

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