In the United States, prostate cancer affects roughly one in every eight people who were assigned male at birth. More than 174,000 people will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year alone. It is one of the most common types of cancer; however, successful treatment is usually possible if the disease is caught early enough.
That’s why September has been designated as National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. A primary aim of this campaign is to encourage people to get screened regularly if they are at risk, so more cases can be addressed before they spread.
Prostate cancer is a type of cancer that affects the prostate, a small walnut-shaped gland that’s located just under the bladder in most people who were assigned male at birth; its purpose is to help make fluid that is part of semen. The gland forms a ring around the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body. It’s one of the most common types of cancer. It occurs when normal prostate gland cells mutate and turn into abnormally growing cells.
Although it’s one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers, typically occurring in people assigned male at birth who are older than 50, most cases do not cause serious harm. This type of cancer usually grows slowly, and it may not even require treatment — instead, a doctor may recommend only careful monitoring to ensure that the cancer does not spread (this is more often true for older patients with other underlying conditions). However, some types of prostate cancer can metastasize quickly. Catching the cancer early is a critical part of successful treatment.
Most often, prostate cancer is caught during a routine screening, since in the early stages there are no noticeable signs or symptoms.
However, there are symptoms associated with late-stage prostate cancer. These include:
• Trouble urinating (a condition called benign prostate hypertrophy, which is an enlargement of the prostate, can also sometimes result in difficulty urinating but does not represent cancer)
• Blood in the urine or semen
• Bone pain
• Decreased force in urine stream
• Unexplained weight loss
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away.
There are several risk factors for prostate cancer that all people who were assigned male at birth should know.
Age is the most important risk factor. Most people who are diagnosed with prostate cancer are over the age of 50, and risk increases with age.
Family history is also a notable risk factor. There are certain genes, including those that predict a higher likelihood of developing breast cancer (BRCA1 or BRCA2), that can raise your risk for prostate cancer.
Additionally, people of certain ethnic backgrounds are at higher risk for prostate cancer, including African American people and others who have African ancestry. Scientists and researchers have not yet been able to determine the reason behind these demographic risk factors.
Most of the time, early-stage prostate cancer is detected during a routine screening.
Typically, healthcare providers will conduct screenings using a blood test called a prostate-specific antigen test (PSA test) and/or a digital rectal exam, in which the doctor uses a finger to feel within the rectum for any abnormalities.
PSA tests do have risks, including false positives, and a positive diagnosis may cause unnecessary stress and lead to unnecessary treatments. For instance, people who are older than 70 are less likely to benefit from treatments for slow-spreading prostate cancer.
It’s important to talk through the benefits and risks of prostate cancer screenings with your doctor. They can help determine a screening schedule that is appropriate for you. Other tests that may be required, depending on initial screenings, include a prostate biopsy and imaging of the body for metastases.
If prostate cancer is detected through a screening, the next step is determining the stage and growth rate of the cancer. In some cases of slow-growing cancer, treatment is not required. Instead, regular follow-ups to monitor the cancer are recommended (a process known as active surveillance).
If the cancer looks like it may metastasize or spread, your healthcare team will determine a treatment plan. This may include medication, hormone therapy, surgery to remove the prostate, various types of radiation or chemotherapy, or ablative therapy, which is a process that uses heat or cold to destroy the affected prostate tissue.
There are many positive changes a person can make to improve health and reduce overall risk for serious diseases such as cancer. Here are some suggestions on where to start.
• Be active for at least 30 minutes a day
• Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains
• Limit your consumption of sugary drinks
• Quit smoking
• Drink alcohol only in moderation
• Establish a relationship with a primary care provider, and maintain a regular schedule of routine checkups and recommended health screenings
Wondering about your next screening for prostate cancer? Contact a Carbon Health healthcare provider today. You can discuss the risks and benefits of screenings, as well as your unique risk factors, during an in-person or virtual appointment.