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Prostate Cancer FAQs

Learn more about prostate cancer.


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1. What is cancer?

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide, and produce more cells as needed to keep the body healthy. Sometimes, however, the process goes wrong -- cells become abnormal and form more cells in an uncontrolled way. These extra cells form a mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor. Tumors can be benign, which means not cancerous, or malignant, which means cancerous.

2. What is prostate cancer?

The prostate is a male sex gland, about the size of a large walnut. It is located below the bladder and in front of the rectum. The prostate's main function is to make fluid for semen, a white substance that carries sperm.

Prostate cancer occurs when a malignant tumor forms in the tissue of the prostate. In its early stage, prostate cancer needs the male hormone testosterone to grow and survive

3. How common is prostate cancer among men in the United States?

Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among American men. It is a slow-growing disease that mostly affects older men. In fact, more than 60 percent of all prostate cancers are found in men over the age of 65. The disease rarely occurs in men younger than 40 years of age

4. What is metastatic prostate cancer?

Sometimes, cancer cells break away from the malignant tumor in the prostate and enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and travel to other organs in the body.

When cancer spreads from its original location in the prostate to another part of the body such as the bone, it is called metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors sometimes call this "distant" disease

5. Can a man survive prostate cancer?

Yes. Today, more men are surviving prostate cancer than ever before. In fact, the number of deaths from prostate cancer has been declining since the early 1990s. If found early, the disease can very likely be cured.

6. What causes prostate cancer?

Scientists don't know exactly what causes prostate cancer. They cannot explain why one man gets prostate cancer and another does not. However, they have been able to identify some risk factors that are associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting a disease

7. What is the most important risk factor for prostate cancer?

Age is the most important risk factor for prostate cancer. The disease is extremely rare in men under age 40, but the risk increases greatly with age. More than 60 percent of cases are diagnosed in men over age 65. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 65

8. Are there other major risk factors for prostate cancer besides age?

Yes. Race is another major risk factor. In the United States, this disease is much more common in African American men than in any other group of men. It is least common in Asian and American Indian men. A man's risk for developing prostate cancer is higher if his father or brother has had the disease.

Diet also may play a role. There is some evidence that a diet high in animal fat may increase the risk of prostate cancer and a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk. Studies to find out whether men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by taking certain dietary supplements are ongoing

9. Are conditions like an enlarged prostate or obesity risk factors for prostate cancer?

Scientists have wondered whether an enlarged prostate, a condition also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH, might increase the risk for prostate cancer.

They have also studied obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, radiation exposure, and a sexually transmitted virus to see if they might increase risk. But at this time, there is little evidence that any of these factors contribute to an increased risk

10. What are the symptoms of prostate cancer?

  • a need to urinate frequently, especially at night
  • difficulty starting urination or holding back urine
  • inability to urinate
  • weak or interrupted flow of urine

If prostate cancer develops and is not treated, it can cause these symptoms:

  • painful or burning urination
  • difficulty in having an erection
  • painful ejaculation
  • blood in urine or semen
  • pain or stiffness in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs

11. Are there other conditions that have symptoms like prostate cancer?

Yes. Any of the symptoms caused by prostate cancer may also be due to enlargement of the prostate, which is not cancer. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned in question #10, see your doctor or a urologist right away to find out if you need treatment. A urologist is a doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the genitourinary system

12. What tests are available for men who have prostate problems?

Doctors use the following tests to detect prostate abnormalities, but these tests cannot show whether abnormalities are cancer or another, less serious condition. The results from these tests will help the doctor decide whether to check the patient further for signs of cancer.

Digital Rectal Exam -- the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate through the rectal wall to check for hard or lumpy areas. A recent study revealed that men with low prostate specific antigen levels, or PSA, may still have prostate cancer.

Blood test for prostate specific antigen or PSA -- a lab measures the levels of PSA in a blood sample. The level of PSA may rise in men who have prostate cancer, an enlarged prostate, or infection in the prostate.

13. What role do diet and dietary supplements play in prostate cancer?

Diet may play a role. There is some evidence that a diet high in animal fat may increase the risk of prostate cancer and a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk.

Studies to find out whether men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by taking certain dietary supplements are ongoing.

One study, that reported initial results in October 2008, found that men taking the dietary supplements vitamin E and/or selenium saw no reduction in their risk of getting prostate cancer. At the moment, no dietary factor has been proven to change your risk of developing prostate cancer or to alter the course of the disease after diagnosis

14. What are the treatment options?

If you have an early diagnosis of prostate cancer, there is usually a range of treatment options. These may include conservative management, radiation therapy with either external bream or brachytherapy therapy, cryosurgery and prostatectomy – surgical removal of the prostate. Your treatment options will depend on a number of factors, including the stage of the disease, your age and health or personal preference.

15. What is a prostatectomy?

The gold standard treatment option for men under 70 with early-stage, organ-confined cancer is surgical removal of the prostate using nerve-sparing radical prostatectomy. Prostatectomy is also the most widely used treatment for prostate cancer today in the US.

The primary goal of prostatectomy is removal of the cancer. A secondary goal is to preserve urinary function and -- when applicable -- erectile function. Preservation of the nerves necessary for erections can be an extremely important goal for patients. These nerves run alongside the prostate and are often damaged when removing the prostate. A nerve-sparing prostatectomy attempts to preserve these nerves so that the patient may be able to return to his prior erectile function.

16. What are the types of prostatectomy?

  • traditional open surgery
  • conventional laparoscopic surgery
  • da Vinci® Prostatectomy, robot-assisted laparoscopic surgery

With a traditional open procedure, your surgeon uses an incision to access the prostate.

Conventional laparoscopy uses a specialized surgical camera and instruments to access and remove the prostate using a series of small incisions. This approach provides your surgeon with better visualization than an open approach. In addition, it provides patients the benefits of a minimally invasive procedure.

The da Vinci Robotic Assisted Surgical System enables surgeons to operate with precision and control using only a few small incisions.

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NOTE: The information in questions 1-13 was provided by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Health.