Prostate cancer is cancer that occurs in a man's prostate — a small walnut-shaped gland that produces the seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm.
Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in men. Prostate cancer usually grows slowly and initially remains confined to the prostate gland, where it may not cause serious harm. While some types of prostate cancer grow slowly and may need minimal or no treatment, other types are aggressive and can spread quickly.
Prostate cancer that is detected early — when it's still confined to the prostate gland — has a better chance of successful treatment.
Tests and diagnosis
Screening for prostate cancer
Whether to test healthy men with no symptoms for prostate cancer is controversial. Medical organizations don't agree on the issue of screening and whether it has benefits.
Some medical organizations recommend men consider prostate cancer screening in their 50s, or sooner for men who have risk factors for prostate cancer. Other organizations advise against screening.
Discuss your particular situation and the benefits and risks of screening with your doctor. Together, you can decide whether prostate cancer screening is right for you.
Prostate screening tests might include:
- Digital rectal exam (DRE). During a DRE, your doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into your rectum to examine your prostate, which is adjacent to the rectum. If your doctor finds any abnormalities in the texture, shape or size of your gland, you may need more tests.
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. A blood sample is drawn from a vein in your arm and analyzed for PSA, a substance that's naturally produced by your prostate gland. It's normal for a small amount of PSA to be in your bloodstream. However, if a higher than normal level is found, it may be an indication of prostate infection, inflammation, enlargement or cancer.
PSA testing combined with DRE helps identify prostate cancers at their earliest stages, but studies have disagreed whether these tests reduce the risk of dying of prostate cancer. For that reason, there is debate surrounding prostate cancer screening.
Diagnosing prostate cancer
If an abnormality is detected on a DRE or PSA test, your doctor may recommend tests to determine whether you have prostate cancer, such as:
- Ultrasound. If other tests raise concerns, your doctor may use transrectal ultrasound to further evaluate your prostate. A small probe, about the size and shape of a cigar, is inserted into your rectum. The probe uses sound waves to make a picture of your prostate gland.
- Collecting a sample of prostate tissue. If initial test results suggest prostate cancer, your doctor may recommend a procedure to collect a sample of cells from your prostate (prostate biopsy). Prostate biopsy is often done using a thin needle that's inserted into the prostate to collect tissue. The tissue sample is analyzed in a lab to determine whether cancer cells are present.
Determining whether prostate cancer is aggressive
When a biopsy confirms the presence of cancer, the next step is to determine the level of aggressiveness (grade) of the cancer cells. In a laboratory, a pathologist examines a sample of your cancer to determine how much cancer cells differ from the healthy cells. A higher grade indicates a more aggressive cancer that is more likely to spread quickly.
The most common scale used to evaluate the grade of prostate cancer cells is called a Gleason score. Scoring combines two numbers and can range from 2 (nonaggressive cancer) to 10 (very aggressive cancer).
Determining how far the cancer has spread
Once a prostate cancer diagnosis has been made, your doctor works to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. If your doctor suspects your cancer may have spread beyond your prostate, imaging tests such as these may be recommended:
- Bone scan
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
Not every person should have every test. Your doctor will help determine which tests are best for your individual case.
Once testing is complete, your doctor assigns your cancer a stage. This helps determine your treatment options. The prostate cancer stages are:
- Stage I. This stage signifies very early cancer that's confined to a small area of the prostate. When viewed under a microscope, the cancer cells aren't considered aggressive.
- Stage II. Cancer at this stage may still be small but may be considered aggressive when cancer cells are viewed under the microscope. Or cancer that is stage II may be larger and may have grown to involve both sides of the prostate gland.
- Stage III. The cancer has spread beyond the prostate to the seminal vesicles or other nearby tissues.
- Stage IV. The cancer has grown to invade nearby organs, such as the bladder, or spread to lymph nodes, bones, lungs or other organs.
Treatments and drugs
Your prostate cancer treatment options depend on several factors, such as how fast your cancer is growing, how much it has spread and your overall health, as well as the benefits and the potential side effects of the treatment.
Immediate treatment may not be necessary
For men diagnosed with very early-stage prostate cancer, treatment may not be necessary right away. Some men may never need treatment. Instead, doctors sometimes recommend active surveillance.
In active surveillance, regular follow-up blood tests, rectal exams and possibly biopsies may be performed to monitor progression of your cancer. If tests show your cancer is progressing, you may opt for a prostate cancer treatment such as surgery or radiation.
Active surveillance may be an option for cancer that isn't causing symptoms, is expected to grow very slowly and is confined to a small area of the prostate. Active surveillance may also be considered for a man who has another serious health condition or an advanced age that makes cancer treatment more difficult.
Active surveillance carries a risk that the cancer may grow and spread between checkups, making it less likely to be cured.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy to kill cancer cells. Prostate cancer radiation therapy can be delivered in two ways:
- Radiation that comes from outside of your body (external beam radiation). During external beam radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around your body, directing high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays or protons, to your prostate cancer. You typically undergo external beam radiation treatments five days a week for several weeks.
- Radiation placed inside your body (brachytherapy).Brachytherapy involves placing many rice-sized radioactive seeds in your prostate tissue. The radioactive seeds deliver a low dose of radiation over a long period of time. Your doctor implants the radioactive seeds in your prostate using a needle guided by ultrasound images. The implanted seeds eventually stop giving off radiation and don't need to be removed.
Side effects of radiation therapy can include painful urination, frequent urination and urgent urination, as well as rectal symptoms, such as loose stools or pain when passing stools. Erectile dysfunction can also occur.
Hormone therapy is treatment to stop your body from producing the male hormone testosterone. Prostate cancer cells rely on testosterone to help them grow. Cutting off the supply of hormones may cause cancer cells to die or to grow more slowly.
Hormone therapy options include:
- Medications that stop your body from producing testosterone. Medications known as luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LH-RH) agonists prevent the testicles from receiving messages to make testosterone. Drugs typically used in this type of hormone therapy include leuprolide (Lupron, Eligard), goserelin (Zoladex), triptorelin (Trelstar) and histrelin (Vantas). Other drugs sometimes used include ketoconazole and abiraterone (Zytiga).
- Medications that block testosterone from reaching cancer cells. Medications known as anti-androgens prevent testosterone from reaching your cancer cells. Examples include bicalutamide (Casodex), flutamide, and nilutamide (Nilandron). The drug enzalutamide (Xtandi) may be an option when other hormone therapies are no longer effective.
- Surgery to remove the testicles (orchiectomy). Removing your testicles reduces testosterone levels in your body.
Hormone therapy is used in men with advanced prostate cancer to shrink the cancer and slow the growth of tumors. In men with early-stage prostate cancer, hormone therapy may be used to shrink tumors before radiation therapy. This can make it more likely that radiation therapy will be successful.
Side effects of hormone therapy may include erectile dysfunction, hot flashes, loss of bone mass, reduced sex drive and weight gain.
Surgery to remove the prostate
Surgery for prostate cancer involves removing the prostate gland (radical prostatectomy), some surrounding tissue and a few lymph nodes. Ways the radical prostatectomy procedure can be performed include:
- Using a robot to assist with surgery. During robot-assisted surgery, the instruments are attached to a mechanical device (robot) and inserted into your abdomen through several small incisions. The surgeon sits at a console and uses hand controls to guide the robot to move the instruments. Robotic prostatectomy may allow the surgeon to make more-precise movements with surgical tools than is possible with traditional minimally invasive surgery.
- Making an incision in your abdomen. During retropubic surgery, the prostate gland is taken out through an incision in your lower abdomen. Compared with other types of prostate surgery, retropubic prostate surgery may carry a lower risk of nerve damage, which can lead to problems with bladder control and erections.
- Making an incision between your anus and scrotum.Perineal surgery involves making an incision between your anus and scrotum in order to access your prostate. The perineal approach to surgery may allow for quicker recovery times, but this technique makes removing the nearby lymph nodes and avoiding nerve damage more difficult.
- Laparoscopic prostatectomy. During a laparoscopic radical prostatectomy, the doctor performs surgery through small incisions in the abdomen with the assistance of a tiny camera (laparoscope). This procedure requires great skill on the part of the surgeon, and it carries an increased risk that nearby structures may be accidentally cut. For this reason, this type of surgery is not commonly performed for prostate cancer in the U.S. anymore.
Discuss with your doctor which type of surgery is best for your specific situation.
Radical prostatectomy carries a risk of urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Ask your doctor to explain the risks you may face based on your situation, the type of procedure you select, your age, your body type and your overall health.
Freezing prostate tissue
Cryosurgery or cryoablation involves freezing tissue to kill cancer cells.
During cryosurgery for prostate cancer, small needles are inserted in the prostate using ultrasound images as guidance. A very cold gas is placed in the needles, which causes the surrounding tissue to freeze. A second gas is then placed in the needles to reheat the tissue. The cycles of freezing and thawing kill the cancer cells and some surrounding healthy tissue.
Initial attempts to use cryosurgery for prostate cancer resulted in high complication rates and unacceptable side effects. However, newer technologies have lowered complication rates, improved cancer control and made the procedure easier to tolerate. Cryosurgery may be an option for men who haven't been helped by radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill rapidly growing cells, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered through a vein in your arm, in pill form or both.
Chemotherapy may be a treatment option for men with prostate cancer that has spread to distant areas of their bodies. Chemotherapy may also be an option for cancers that don't respond to hormone therapy.
Biological therapy (immunotherapy) uses your body's immune system to fight cancer cells. One type of biological therapy called sipuleucel-T (Provenge) has been developed to treat advanced, recurrent prostate cancer.
This treatment takes some of your own immune cells, genetically engineers them in a laboratory to fight prostate cancer, then injects the cells back into your body through a vein. Some men do respond to this therapy with some improvement in their cancer, but the treatment is very expensive and requires multiple treatments.