The prostate is a small walnut shaped gland in the pelvis of men. It is located next to the bladder and can be examined by getting a digital rectal exam. Prostate cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the prostate gland. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths for men in the U.S. About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. This year, nearly 175,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Growths in the prostate can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
Benign growths (like benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH):
- Are rarely a threat to life
- Don’t invade the tissues around them
- Don’t spread to other parts of the body
- Can be removed and can grow back very slowly (but usually don’t grow back)
Malignant growths (prostate cancer):
- May sometimes be a threat to life
- Can spread to nearby organs and tissues (such as the bladder or rectum)
- Can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body (like lymph nodes or bone)
- Often can be removed but sometimes grow back
Prostate cancer cells can spread by breaking away from a prostate tumor. They can travel through blood vessels or lymph nodes to reach other parts of the body. After spreading, cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors, causing damage where they land.
When prostate cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary (original) tumor. For example, if prostate cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually prostate cancer cells. The disease is metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it’s treated as prostate cancer in bone.
To understand prostate cancer, it helps to know how the prostate normally works.
The prostate and seminal vesicles are part of the male reproductive system. The prostate is about the size of a walnut and weighs about one ounce. The seminal vesicles are two much smaller paired glands. These glands are attached to each side of the prostate. Some have said that the seminal vesicles look like rabbit ears attached to the prostate. The prostate is below the bladder and in front of the rectum. The prostate surrounds the urethra. The urethra is a tube that carries urine from the bladder out through the penis. This is why men with an enlarged prostate have difficulty urinating. It can disrupt the flow of urine from the bladder.
The main job of the prostate and seminal vesicles is to make fluid to bathe semen. During ejaculation, sperm is made in the testicles, and then moves to the urethra. At the same time, fluid from the prostate and the seminal vesicles also moves into the urethra. This mixture of semen and fluid from the prostate and seminal vesicles forms the ejaculate that passes through the urethra and out of the penis.
When prostate cancer occurs, it starts in the prostate gland and occasionally spreads to the seminal vesicles.
Updated January 2019
In its early stages, prostate cancer often has no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can be like those of an enlarged prostate or BPH. Prostate cancer can also cause symptoms unrelated to BPH. If you have urinary problems, talk with your healthcare provider about them.
Symptoms of prostate cancer can be:
- Dull pain in the lower pelvic area
- Frequent urinating
- Trouble urinating, pain, burning, or weak urine flow
- Blood in the urine (Hematuria)
- Painful ejaculation
- Pain in the lower back, hips or upper thighs
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of weight
- Bone pain
Updated August 2018
No one knows why or how prostate cancer starts. Autopsy studies show 1 in 3 men over the age of 50 have some cancer cells in the prostate. Eight out of ten “autopsy cancers” found are small, with tumors that are not harmful.
Even though there is no known reason for prostate cancer, there are many risks associated with the disease.
What Are The Risk Factors for Prostate Cancer?
As men age, their risk of getting prostate cancer goes up. It is rarely found in men younger than age 40. Damage to the genetic material (DNA) of prostate cells is more likely for men over the age of 55. Damaged or abnormal prostate cells can begin to grow out of control and form tumors.
Age is a well-known risk factor for prostate cancer. But, smoking and being overweight are more closely linked with dying from prostate cancer.
African American men have, by far, the highest incidence of the disease. One in six African American men will get prostate cancer. African American men are more likely to get prostate cancer at an earlier age. They are also more like to have aggressive tumors that grow quickly, spread and cause death. The reason why prostate cancer is more prevalent in African American men is unclear yet it may be due to socioeconomic, environmental, diet or other factors. Other ethnicities, such as Hispanic and Asian men, are less likely to get prostate cancer.
Men with a family history of prostate cancer also face a higher risk of also developing the disease. A man is 2 to 3 times more likely to get prostate cancer if his father, brother or son had it. This risk increases with the number of relatives diagnosed with prostate cancer. The age when a close relative was diagnosed is also an important factor.
Studies show prostate cancer risk may double for heavy smokers. Smoking is also linked to a higher risk of dying from prostate cancer. However, within 10 years of quitting, your risk for prostate cancer goes down to that of a non-smoker the same age.
Prostate cancer numbers and deaths vary around the world but are higher in North America and Northern Europe. Higher rates may be due to better or more screening procedures, heredity, poor diets, lack of exercise habits, and environmental exposures.
Diet and lifestyle may affect the risk of prostate cancer. It isn’t clear exactly how. Your risk may be higher if you eat more calories, animal fats, refined sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables. A lack of exercise is also linked to poor outcomes. Obesity (or being very overweight) is known to increase a man’s risk of dying from prostate cancer. One way to decrease your risk is to lose weight, and keep it off.
Can Prostate Cancer Be Prevented?
Doing things that are “heart healthy”, will also keep your prostate healthy. Eating right, exercising, watching your weight and not smoking can be good for your health and help you avoid prostate cancer.
Some healthcare providers believe drugs like finasteride (Proscar ®) and dutasteride (Avodart ®) can prevent prostate cancer. Others believe they only slow the development of prostate cancer. Studies do show that men taking these drugs were less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Still, it is not clear if these drugs are affective so you should talk to your doctor about the possible side effects.
Updated August 2018
“Screening” means testing for a disease even if you have no symptoms. The prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test and digital rectal examination (DRE) are two tests that are used to screen for prostate cancer. Both are used to detect cancer early. However, these tests are not perfect. Abnormal results with either test may be due to benign prostatic enlargement (BPH) or infection, rather than cancer.
The American Urological Association (AUA) recommends talking with your healthcare provider about whether or not you should be screened. To find out if prostate cancer screening is a good idea, take our Know Your Stats Risk Assessment Test. Tell your results to your healthcare provider when you talk about the benefits and risks of screening.
The two main types of screenings are:
PSA Blood Test
The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test is one way to screen for prostate cancer. This blood test measures the level of PSA in the blood. PSA is a protein made only by the prostate and prostate cancers. The test can be done in a lab, hospital or healthcare provider’s office.
Very little PSA is found in the blood of a man with a healthy prostate. A low PSA is a sign of prostate health. A rapid rise in PSA may be a sign that something is wrong. Prostate cancer is the most serious cause of a high PSA result. Another reason for a high PSA can be benign (non-cancer) enlargement of the prostate. Prostatitis, inflammation of the prostate, can also cause high PSA results.
A rise in PSA level does not tell us the type of cancer cells present. The rise tells us that cancer may be present.
Talk with your healthcare provider about whether the PSA test is useful for you. If you decide to get tested, be sure to talk about changes in your PSA level with your provider. Make sure to watch our video on the PSA Blood test.
The digital rectal examination (DRE) helps your doctor find prostate problems. For this exam, the healthcare provider puts a lubricated gloved finger into the rectum. The man either bends over or lies curled on his side on a table. During this test, the doctor feels for an abnormal shape or thickness to the prostate. DRE is safe and easy to do. But the DRE by itself cannot detect early cancer. It should be done with a PSA test.
Who Should Get Screened?
Screening is recommended if you are a man:
- Between 55–69 years old
- Have a family history of prostate cancer
What are the benefits and risks of screening?
The PSA test and DRE are very important tools. They help to find prostate cancer early, before it spreads. When found early, it can be treated early which helps stop or slow the spread of cancer. This is likely to help some men live longer.
A risk of a PSA test is that it may miss detecting cancer (a “false negative”). Or, the test may be a “false positive,” suggesting something is wrong when you are actually healthy. A false positive result may lead to a biopsy that isn’t needed. The test might also detect very slow growing cancer that will never cause problems if left untreated.
What is a Biopsy?
A Biopsy is a type of minor surgery. For a prostate biopsy , tiny pieces of tissue are removed from the prostate and looked at under a microscope. The pathologist is the doctor who will look carefully at the tissue samples to look for cancer cells. This is the only way to know for sure if you have prostate cancer.
The decision to have a biopsy is based on PSA and DRE results. Your doctor will also consider your family history of prostate cancer, ethnicity, biopsy history and other health factors.
Prostate biopsy is usually done using an ultrasound probe to look at the prostate and guide the biopsy. You may be given an enema and antibiotics to prevent infection. For the test, you will lie on your side as the probe goes into the rectum. First, your provider takes a picture of the prostate using ultrasound. Your healthcare provider will note the prostate gland’s size, shape and any abnormalities. He/she will also look for shadows, which might signal cancer. Not all prostate cancers can be seen, and not all shadows are cancer. The prostate gland is then numbed (anesthetized) with a needle passed through the probe. Then, the provider removes very small pieces of your prostate using a biopsy device. The amount of tissue removed depends on the size of the gland, PSA results and past biopsies.