What Is Prostate Cancer?

1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.

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“We know that prostate cancer is a very common disease—the most common in men,” says William K. Oh, MD, chief of hematology and medical oncology at Mount Sinai Health System. Even though prostate cancer is very common, it most often occurs in men older than 50, and most men do not die from it. That’s because prostate cancer grows very slowly. 

“We don’t know what causes it, but we know that this prostate organ can get cancerous as men get older,” says Dr. Oh. The prostate is a gland that makes fluid that’s part of semen. It’s below the bladder and forms a ring around the urethra (where urine comes out). Prostate cancer happens when normal cells in the prostate gland become abnormal and then grow out of control. 

Can Prostate Cancer Be Caught Early? 

Unfortunately, there aren’t any early warning signs for prostate cancer. The growing tumor doesn’t push against anything thing the body (which is often the cause of symptoms or pain), so the disease can be silent for many years. 

If prostate cancer does cause symptoms, a person might: 

    • Need to urinate more often than usual

    • Or have a urine stream that is slower than usual

The good news is, prostate cancer can often be found with a screening test before symptoms start. Doctors look for prostate cancer by testing the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in a man’s blood. Doctors may also conduct a digital rectal exam (DRE), in which the doctor puts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to feel the prostate gland for any masses. 

Even though prostate cancer can be found early with a screening, regular screenings may not be necessary—or recommended—for some men. It’s wise for men to make the decision to get screened after having a discussion with their doctor about the benefits, risks, and limits of prostate cancer screening.

How Is Prostate Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

If a doctor suspects prostate cancer, he or she may follow up with more diagnostic tests, such as a(n):

  • Biopsy. A doctor takes a small tissue sample from the prostate to examine under a microscope for cancer. 

  • Ultrasound, MRI scan, or other imaging tests. These tests show images of the body and can show abnormal growths. 

If prostate cancer is confirmed, then treatment options will be discussed. Men often have a choice of treatment. The main types of prostate cancer treatment are: 

  • Active surveillance. The patient and medical team will watch and wait on treatment to see if the cancer grows more quickly. 

  • Surgery to remove the prostate gland. 

  • Radiation therapy to kill cancer cells. 

  • Hormone therapy. Hormones help prostate cancer grow. This therapy reduces the levels of hormones which can shrink the cancer. 

  • Chemotherapy, which is medicine that kills cancer cells and stops them from growing. 

“In most situations, the goal, as with all cancers, is to cure the cancer, to eradicate it,” says Dr. Oh. “It is absolutely possible in patients with prostate cancer to cure it.”