What is Prostate Cancer?
The prostate is a small organ below the bladder, with the urethra running through the center of it. Within this walnut-shaped gland, seminal fluid combines with sperm to become the semen expelled during ejaculation.
As with other types of cancer, Prostate Cancer develops when cells grow out of control. If untreated, the cancer may metastasize to other parts of the body, resulting in serious health consequences and even fatality.
Prostate Cancer vs Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia
In nearly all men, the prostate will increase in size during the aging process. This is known as Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) and is not dangerous, nor does it increase the risk of cancer. Prostatic enlargement may also be due to infection. Enlargement of the prostate and Prostate Cancer may sometimes occur together, however they are two distinct conditions.
When a man’s prostate becomes enlarged, whether due to BPH or cancer, the man may initially notice that it becomes more difficult for him to urinate. It may take longer for his stream to begin flowing and it may also pass more slowly than usual. There may be a burning sensation and the urge to urinate may become much more urgent as well as more frequent.
In cases of actual Prostate Cancer, the above urinary symptoms are still likely to be present however there will usually be additional clues to the prostate’s true condition.
One of the most alarming signs of Prostate Cancer would likely be the presence of blood in a man’s urine and/or semen. This is not likely to go unnoticed and is a very clear indicator that the health problem is more than simple BPH.
Other signs may include: erectile dysfunction; bone pain in the lower back, hips, and pelvic region; and pain during ejaculation.
Known Risk Factors
While the exact causes of Prostate Cancer have not been discovered, there are some factors which have been established to increase an individual’s risk for developing the disease.
After a man surpasses 50 years of age, his risk of developing Prostate Cancer becomes much higher.
African-American men are the most susceptible to developing this condition and, if they do, it is also more likely to advance quickly and aggressively.
A family history of either Prostate Cancer, Breast Cancer, or both, are at higher risk of developing Prostate Cancer themselves, especially if their relatives were young at the time of their diagnosis.
Being obese and eating a high-fat diet increases the risk of Prostate Cancer.
Infrequent ejaculation and especially sexual celibacy has been linked to an increase in rates of Prostate Cancer. Men with an active sex life (and particularly those who ejaculate at least three times per week) have a lower risk of developing a cancerous growth in their prostate.
The most common method of screening for changes in a man’s prostate is through a Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) in which a physician manually investigates a man’s prostate by inserting a gloved finger into the patient’s rectum. While many men find this process to be awkward and embarassing, it lasts only a couple of seconds and is one of the simplest ways to detect changes in the prostate.
Due to the fact that DRE only allows the doctor to investigate one side of the prostate, a Prostate-Specific Andigen Test may be performed. This entails a blood draw, which is then examined for high levels of PSA, which may signify a potential problem. It is worth noting that PSA levels vary from one man to another and even from one day to the next, depending on factors such as hormone levels and recent sexual activity.
If Prostate Cancer seems likely, the physician may recommend that a biopsy be performed. A small tissue sample is taken and examined under a microscope to determine whether tumor cells are present and, if so, what stage the cancer has progressed to.
Depending upon how aggressive a particular cancer is, different treatments may be recommended.
In cases where the Prostate Cancer seems to be progressing slowly and there is a very low risk of cancerous cells metastasizing, active surveillance may be attempted first in order to monitor the disease’s progression and delay further invasive treatments.
In cases where the cancer is particularly aggressive, has advanced quite far, or is significantly impacting the patient in other ways (such as by obstructing the flow of urine) a surgery known as radical prostatectomy may be performed. This may be either an open procedure or it may be done laparoscopically, to minimize the size of scars and risk of infection. The drawbacks of prostate surgery include erectile dysfunction (present to some degree in all men who have undergone removal of the prostate gland), permanent infertility, reduced sexual sensitivity, and little or no fluid ejaculated during orgasm. There is also a potential risk of urinary incontinence.
As with other types of cancers, radiation and chemotherapy may be viable treatments for a patient suffering from Prostate Cancer, however they are usually used in conjunction with surgery rather than as the sole cure.
There are a number of treatments which may be suitable for men who are not good candidates for Prostatectomy, such as hormone therapy, Androgen Deprivation Therapy, High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound, and Cryotherapy, however most of these treatments are very new and either less-effective than desired or (in the case of cryotherapy) the potential risks – in that case fistula – may be disastrous.
Immunotherapy is a new technique which is still in development. The body’s own immune system is stimulated to attack and fight cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells intact. So far one treatment – known as Provenge – has been shown to slow the progression of Prostate Cancer, but further testing must be done in order to make this a viable cure for the disorder.