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Could It Be Prostate Cancer?

Published on Aug. 25, 2021

Let’s talk about prostate cancer.

It’s the second-most common cancer diagnosed in U.S. men. Only skin cancer is more common. And according to the American Cancer Society, about one man in eight will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime.

But the good news is, prostate cancer can be treated when found early.

“When identified at an early stage, prostate cancer is treatable,” said Jessica Arden, MD, PhD, radiation oncology specialist for Munson Medical Center and Traverse Bay Radiation Oncologists. “There are multiple treatment options that allow patients and physicians to work together and identify which option is the best fit.”

This quick primer will give you a better idea of how prostate cancer forms, who is most at risk, and a few ways you practice prevention beginning today.

What is prostate cancer?

Cancer that starts in the cells of the prostate is called prostate cancer.

The prostate is a gland in men about the size and shape of a walnut. It’s located behind the base of the penis and wraps around the upper part of the urethra. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder through the penis and out of the body.

As a man ages, his prostate cells may form tumors (lumps of cancerous tissue) or other growths. When abnormal prostate cells grow out of control and start to invade other tissues, they're called cancer cells.

These cells may or may not cause symptoms. Some tumors can be felt during a physical exam, but some can’t. Over time, prostate cancer may grow into bones and organs or spread to nearby lymph nodes. This is called metastasis and makes the cancer much harder to treat.

How is prostate cancer diagnosed?

It's not clear what causes prostate cancer, and it may not cause symptoms at first, which is why screening tests are so important.

“Screening is the best way to find prostate cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage,” Dr. Arden said. “A man whose prostate cancer is discovered through screening might have no symptoms at the time his disease is found.”

In advanced stages, prostate cancer symptoms may include:

  • Problems urinating
  • Less force in the stream of urine
  • Blood in the urine and/or semen
  • Bone pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Erectile dysfunction

Your family doctor or primary care provider must first examine you and run some tests to find out if you have prostate cancer. These tests may include:

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing. PSA is a chemical made by prostate cells. The amount of PSA in the blood (PSA level) can be tested to check for prostate cancer. In general, a high or rising PSA level may mean there's cancer. But a PSA test by itself can't show if a man has prostate cancer.

Core needle biopsy. This test is needed to know for sure if a man has prostate cancer. During the test, a small probe is put into the rectum. The probe sends an image of the prostate to a video screen. With this image as a guide, the healthcare provider uses a thin, hollow needle to remove tissue samples from all over the prostate. These are sent to a lab where they are looked at and tested for cancer cells.

These tests can help find out if a problem is caused by cancer and give more information about the cancer itself.

Is it always prostate cancer?

No. Not every abnormal prostate growth is cancer. These growths may also be:

  • Non-cancerous BPH. As a man ages, the prostate tends to enlarge. This is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). The extra prostate tissue from BPH often squeezes the urethra, causing symptoms such as trouble passing urine. But BPH is not and doesn't lead to cancer.
  • Atypical PIN cells. Sometimes prostate cells don’t look like normal prostate cells. One type of abnormal growth is called prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia or PIN. PIN cells are not cancer cells. But if the pattern of cells is very abnormal (called high-grade PIN), there's about a 1 in 5 chance that there might be cancer in another part of the prostate.

Risk factors for prostate cancer

Risk factors for prostate cancer include:

  • Gender. Only men are at risk.
  • Age. Men ages 50 and older are at higher risk. Most prostate cancers are found in men older than age 65.
  • Race. Prostate cancer is more common in African-American and Caribbean men of African ancestry than men of any other race. And it tends to happen when these men are younger. It’s less common in Asian-American and Hispanic men than in non-Hispanic white men.
  • Family history. Having a father or brother with prostate cancer greatly raises a man’s risk for the disease. The risk is even higher if more than one family member has the cancer, especially if at a young age.
  • Chemical exposures. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that men who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are at higher risk for prostate cancer.
  • Genes. Men with certain inherited gene changes are at higher risk for prostate cancer. But only a small amount of prostate cancers are strongly linked to gene changes.

Can I prevent prostate cancer?

There’s no sure way to prevent prostate cancer. 

Some risk factors like age, race, and family history are out of your control. But a healthy lifestyle may help to lower your risk for prostate cancer. Take these steps:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables every day. Include tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. You can also prepare beans, peas, and lentils. 
  • Limit high-fat meats and high-fat dairy foods. These include hamburgers, sausage, cheese, and ice cream. Instead eat lean meats, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.
  • Limit calcium in your diet. Too much calcium may raise your risk for prostate cancer. Normal amounts of calcium in dairy foods and drinks are fine. But talk with your healthcare provider before you take calcium supplements.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Obesity is linked to a higher risk for a more deadly type of prostate cancer.
  • Get physical activity. Try to stay active for at least 30 minutes on most days.

Schedule your screening

Talk with your family doctor or primary care provider to see if your age or family history qualifies you for a prostate cancer screening.

If you don’t have a family doctor, or if you have immediate questions about your specific symptoms, call Munson Healthcare Ask-a-Nurse at 231-935-0951. Registered nurses are here for you daily from 7 am to 11 pm at no charge. We can help you find a physician nearby.

Ask-A-Nurse   231-935-0951

Munson Healthcare provides the latest coordinated care and treatments for men with prostate cancer, including SpaceOAR® and SpaceOAR VUE radiation therapy. Please contact us at 231-392-8400 or for additional information.