Overview of Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in men of all ages. It is rare in men younger than 40.
Levels of a substance called prostate specific antigen (PSA) is often high in men with prostate cancer. However, PSA can also be high with other prostate conditions. Since the PSA test became common, most prostate cancers are found before they cause symptoms.
Symptoms of prostate cancer may include:
- Problems passing urine, such as pain, difficulty starting or stopping the stream, or dribbling
- Low back pain
- Pain with ejaculation
Prostate cancer treatment often depends on the stage of the cancer. How fast the cancer grows and how different it is from surrounding tissue helps determine the stage.
Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or control of hormones that affect the cancer.
Development of Cancer Cells
Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body.
Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.
Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. Prostate growths can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign growths are not as harmful as malignant growths.
Benign growths (such as BPH):
- are rarely a threat to life
- can be removed and probably won't grow back
- don't invade the tissues around them
- don't spread to other parts of the body
- may be a threat to life
- often can be removed, but sometimes grow back
- can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs
- can spread to other parts of the body
Cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the prostate tumor. They enter blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into all the tissues of the body. The cancer cells can attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues. The spread of cancer is called metastasis. See the Staging section for information about prostate cancer that has spread.
Risk Factors of Prostate Cancer
No one knows the exact causes of prostate cancer. Doctors seldom know why one man develops prostate cancer and another doesn't. However, research has shown that men with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop prostate cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.
Studies have found the following risk factors for prostate cancer:
- Age over 65: Age is the main risk factor for prostate cancer. The chance of getting prostate cancer increases as you get older. In the United States, most men with prostate cancer are over 65. This disease is rare in men under 45.
- Family history: Your risk is higher if your father, brother, or son had prostate cancer.
- Race: Prostate cancer is more common among black men than white or Hispanic/Latino men. It's less common among Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native men.
- Certain prostate changes: Men with cells called high-grade prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PIN) may be at increased risk of prostate cancer. These prostate cells look abnormal under a microscope.
- Certain genome changes: Researchers have found specific regions on certain chromosomes that are linked to the risk of prostate cancer. According to recent studies, if a man has a genetic change in one or more of these regions, the risk of prostate cancer may be increased. The risk increases with the number of genetic changes that are found.
Also, other studies have shown an elevated risk of prostate cancer among men with changes in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Having a risk factor doesn't mean that a man will develop prostate cancer. Most men who have risk factors never develop the disease.
Many other possible risk factors are under study. For example, researchers have studied whether vasectomy (surgery to cut or tie off the tubes that carry sperm out of the testicles) may pose a risk, but most studies have found no increased risk. Also, most studies have shown that the chance of getting prostate cancer is not increased by tobacco or alcohol use, BPH, a sexually transmitted disease, obesity, a lack of exercise, or a diet high in animal fat or meat.
Researchers continue to study these and other possible risk factors.
Researchers are also studying how prostate cancer may be prevented. For example, they are studying the possible benefits of certain drugs, vitamin E, selenium, green tea extract, and other substances. These studies are with men who have not yet developed prostate cancer.
Symptoms of Prostate Cancer
A man with prostate cancer may not have any symptoms. For men who do have symptoms, the common symptoms include:
- Urinary problems
- Not being able to pass urine
- Having a hard time starting or stopping the urine flow
- Needing to urinate often, especially at night
- Weak flow of urine
- Urine flow that starts and stops
- Pain or burning during urination
- Difficulty having an erection
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Frequent pain in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs
Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. BPH, an infection, or another health problem may cause them.
If you have any of these symptoms, please contact our offices so that your problems can be diagnosed and treated.
Treatment of Prostate Cancer
If the biopsy shows that you have cancer, your doctor needs to learn the extent (stage) of the disease to help you choose the best treatment. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the tumor has invaded nearby tissues, whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body.
Some men may need tests that make pictures of the body:
- Bone scan: The doctor injects a small amount of a radioactive substance into a blood vessel. It travels through the bloodstream and collects in the bones. A machine called a scanner detects and measures the radiation. The scanner makes pictures of the bones on a computer screen or on film. The pictures may show cancer that has spread to the bones.
- CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your pelvis or other parts of the body. Doctors use CT scans to look for prostate cancer that has spread to lymph nodes and other areas. You may receive contrast material by injection into a blood vessel in your arm or hand, or by enema. The contrast material makes abnormal areas easier to see.
- MRI: A strong magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas inside your body. The doctor can view these pictures on a monitor and can print them on film. An MRI can show whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other areas. Sometimes contrast material makes abnormal areas show up more clearly on the picture.
When prostate cancer spreads, it's often found in nearby lymph nodes. If cancer has reached these nodes, it also may have spread to other lymph nodes, the bones, or other organs.
When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if prostate cancer spreads to bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually prostate cancer cells. The disease is metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it's treated as prostate cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.
Men with prostate cancer have many treatment options. The treatment that's best for one man may not be best for another. The options include active surveillance, surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and chemotherapy. You may have a combination of treatments.
The treatment that's right for you depends mainly on your age, the grade of the tumor (the Gleason score), the number of biopsy tissue samples that contain cancer cells, the stage of the cancer, your symptoms, and your general health. Your doctor can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs.
Treatment Type: Active Surveillance
You may choose active surveillance if the risks and possible side effects of treatment outweigh the possible benefits. Your doctor may suggest active surveillance if you're diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer that seems to be slowly growing. Your doctor may also offer this option if you are older or have other serious health problems.
Choosing active surveillance doesn't mean you're giving up. It means you're putting off the side effects of surgery or radiation therapy. Having surgery or radiation therapy is no guarantee that a man will live longer than a man who chooses to put off treatment.
If you and your doctor agree that active surveillance is a good idea, your doctor will check you regularly (such as every 3 to 6 months, at first). After about one year, your doctor may order another biopsy to check the Gleason score. You may begin treatment if your Gleason score rises, your PSA level starts to rise, or you develop symptoms. You'll receive surgery, radiation therapy, or another approach.
Active surveillance avoids or delays the side effects of surgery and radiation therapy, but this choice has risks. For some men, it may reduce the chance to control cancer before it spreads. Also, it may be harder to cope with surgery or radiation therapy when you're older.
If you choose active surveillance but grow concerned later, you should discuss your feelings with your doctor. Another approach is an option for most men.
Treatment Type: Surgery
Surgery is an option for men with early (Stage I or II) prostate cancer. It's sometimes an option for men with Stage III or IV prostate cancer. The surgeon may remove the whole prostate or only part of it.
Before the surgeon removes the prostate, the lymph nodes in the pelvis may be removed. If prostate cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, the disease may have spread to other parts of the body. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the surgeon does not always remove the prostate and may suggest other types of treatment.
There are several types of surgery for prostate cancer. Each type has benefits and risks. You and your doctor can talk about the types of surgery and which may be right for you:
Open Surgery: The surgeon makes a large incision (cut) into your body to remove the tumor. There are two approaches:
- Through the abdomen: The surgeon removes the entire prostate through a cut in the abdomen. This is called a radical retropubic prostatectomy.
- Between the scrotum and anus: The surgeon removes the entire prostate through a cut between the scrotum and the anus. This is called a radical perineal prostatectomy.
Laparoscopic Prostatectomy: The surgeon removes the entire prostate through small cuts, rather than a single long cut in the abdomen. A thin, lighted tube (a laparoscope) helps the surgeon remove the prostate.
Robotic Laparoscopic Surgery: The surgeon removes the entire prostate through small cuts. A laparoscope and a robot are used to help remove the prostate. The surgeon uses handles below a computer display to control the robot's arms.
Cryosurgery: For some men, cryosurgery is an option. The surgeon inserts a tool through a small cut between the scrotum and anus. The tool freezes and kills prostate tissue. Cryosurgery is under study. See the section on Taking Part in Cancer Research.
TURP: A man with advanced prostate cancer may choose TURP (transurethral resection of the prostate) to relieve symptoms. The surgeon inserts a long, thin scope through the urethra. A cutting tool at the end of the scope removes tissue from the inside of the prostate. TURP may not remove all of the cancer, but it can remove tissue that blocks the flow of urine.
You may be uncomfortable for the first few days or weeks after surgery. However, medicine can help control the pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more pain relief.
The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for each man and depends on the type of surgery. You may be in the hospital for one to three days. After surgery, the urethra needs time to heal. You'll have a catheter. A catheter is a tube put through the urethra into the bladder to drain urine. You'll have the catheter for 5 days to 3 weeks. Your nurse or doctor will show you how to care for it. After surgery, some men may lose control of the flow of urine (urinary incontinence). Most men regain at least some bladder control after a few weeks.
Surgery can damage the nerves around the prostate. Damaging these nerves can make a man impotent (unable to have an erection). In some cases, your surgeon can protect the nerves that control erection. But if you have a large tumor or a tumor that's very close to the nerves, surgery may cause impotence. Impotence can be permanent. You can talk with your doctor about medicine and other ways to help manage the sexual side effects of cancer treatment.
Treatment Type: Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is an option for men with any stage of prostate cancer. Men with early stage prostate cancer may choose radiation therapy instead of surgery. It also may be used after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that remain in the area. In later stages of prostate cancer, radiation treatment may be used to help relieve pain.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the treated area.
Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat prostate cancer. Some men receive both types:
External radiation: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. You will go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks. Many men receive 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy or intensity-modulated radiation therapy. These types of treatment use computers to more closely target the cancer to lessen the damage to healthy tissue near the prostate.
Internal radiation (implant radiation or brachytherapy): The radiation comes from radioactive material usually contained in very small implants called seeds. Dozens of seeds are placed inside needles, and the needles are inserted into the prostate. The needles are removed, leaving the seeds behind. The seeds give off radiation for months. They don't need to be removed once the radiation is gone.
Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. You're likely to be very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay active, unless it leads to pain or other problems.
If you have external radiation, you may have diarrhea or frequent and uncomfortable urination. Some men have lasting bowel or urinary problems. Your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. You may lose hair in the treated area. The hair may not grow back.
Internal radiation therapy may cause incontinence. This side effect usually goes away. Both internal and external radiation can cause impotence. You can talk with your doctor about ways to help cope with this side effect.
Treatment Type: Hormone Therapy
A man with prostate cancer may have hormone therapy before, during, or after radiation therapy. Hormone therapy is also used alone for prostate cancer that has returned after treatment.
Male hormones (androgens) can cause prostate cancer to grow. Hormone therapy keeps prostate cancer cells from getting the male hormones they need to grow. The testicles are the body's main source of the male hormone testosterone. The adrenal gland makes other male hormones and a small amount of testosterone.
Hormone therapy uses drugs or surgery:
Drugs: Your doctor may suggest a drug that can block natural hormones:
- Luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LH-RH) agonists: These drugs can prevent the testicles from making testosterone. Examples are leuprolide, goserelin, and triptorelin. The testosterone level falls slowly. Without testosterone, the tumor shrinks, or its growth slows. These drugs are also called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists.
- Antiandrogens: These drugs can block the action of male hormones. Examples are flutamide, bicalutamide, and nilutamide.
- Other drugs: Some drugs can prevent the adrenal gland from making testosterone. Examples are ketoconazole and aminoglutethimide.
Surgery: Surgery to remove the testicles is called orchiectomy.
After orchiectomy or treatment with an LH-RH agonist, your body no longer gets testosterone from the testicles, the major source of male hormones. Because the adrenal gland makes small amounts of male hormones, you may receive an antiandrogen to block the action of the male hormones that remain. This combination of treatments is known as total androgen blockade (also called combined androgen blockade). However, studies have shown that total androgen blockade is no more effective than surgery or an LH-RH agonist alone.
Hormone therapy causes side effects such as impotence, hot flashes, and loss of sexual desire. Also, any treatment that lowers hormone levels can weaken your bones. Your doctor can suggest medicines that may reduce your risk of bone fractures.
An LH-RH agonist may make your symptoms worse for a short time at first. This temporary problem is called "flare." To prevent flare, your doctor may give you an antiandrogen for a few weeks along with the LH-RH agonist.
An LH-RH agonist such as leuprolide can increase body fat, especially around the waist. The levels of sugar and cholesterol in your blood may increase too. Because these changes increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, your health care team will monitor you for these side effects.
Antiandrogens (such as nilutamide) can cause nausea, diarrhea, or breast growth or tenderness. Rarely, they may cause liver problems (pain in the abdomen, yellow eyes, or dark urine). Some men who use nilutamide may have shortness of breath or develop heart failure. Some may have trouble adjusting to sudden changes in light.
If you receive total androgen blockade, you may have more side effects than if you have just one type of hormone treatment.
If used for a long time, ketoconazole may cause liver problems, and aminoglutethimide can cause skin rashes.
Doctors usually treat prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body with hormone therapy. For some men, the cancer will be controlled for two or three years, but others will have a much shorter response to hormone therapy. In time, most prostate cancers can grow with very little or no male hormones, and hormone therapy alone is no longer helpful. At that time, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy or other forms of treatment that are under study. In many cases, the doctor may suggest continuing with hormone therapy because it may still be effective against some of the cancer cells.
Treatment Type: Chemotherapy Therapy
Chemotherapy may be used for prostate cancer that has spread and no longer responds to hormone therapy.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs for prostate cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous). You may receive chemotherapy in a clinic, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some men need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells: When chemotherapy lowers the levels of healthy blood cells, you're more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells. If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for a while or reduce the dose of drug. There are also medicines that can help your body make new blood cells.
- Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your hair, it will grow back, but it may change in color and texture.
- Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, or diarrhea. Your health care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these problems.
Other side effects include shortness of breath and a problem with your body holding extra water. Your health care team can give you medicine to protect against too much water building up in the body. Also, chemotherapy may cause a skin rash, tingling or numbness in your hands and feet, and watery eyes. Your health care team can suggest ways to control many of these problems. Most go away when treatment ends.
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