Prostate cancer explained

What is the prostate gland?

Only men have a prostate glandAn organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids.. It is doughnut-shaped and sits at the base of the bladderThe organ that stores urine., surrounding the tube, called the urethra, through which men pass urine and semen.

The prostate plays an important role in a man's sex and reproductive life. It produces the fluid that carries and nourishes the sperm. The prostate also produces a protein called prostate-specific antigenAn enzyme that is produced by the prostate, a gland that surrounds the urethra near the bladder. High levels are present in the blood when the prostate gland is enlarged or inflamed. (PSA), which converts the semen from gel to liquid.

In young men, the prostate is usually the size of a walnut. The size of the prostate increases slowly with age. Since it surrounds the urethra, this increase in size can cause problems passing urine and semen.


Interactive illustration of where the prostate sits inside the male body

What is prostate cancer?

Normal cells in the body grow and die in a pre-programmed, controlled way. Cancer of the prostate, like all cancers, arises when cells begin to grow abnormally in an uncontrolled way. If the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. does not spread outside the prostate, it is termed 'localised' and is generally not life-threatening. If the cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. invades and destroys neighbouring cells and tissues, it is an aggressive cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

In some cases, a cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. can spread beyond the organ where it originated. Cancer cells can produce a special enzymeA protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body without being used up itself. that enables them to invade other tissues and travel through the bloodstream and lymphatic systemVessels that carry lymphatic fluid, a fluid derived from the blood. to other areas of the body.

The process of spreading is called metastasisThe spread of a malignant tumour to other parts of the body..

Nearly all prostate cancers are called adenocarcinomas, a type of cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. that arises in a glandAn organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids.. They are mainly found on the outside edges of the prostate.

Some prostate cancers grow slowly and cause no obvious problems. A man can live with this kind of prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. without it shortening his expected lifespan. Other prostate cancers grow quickly. Early detection by bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. tests and examinations can lead to a cure.

It is not known precisely what causes cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. to develop within the prostate glandAn organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids., although there is evidence to show that genes, family history and diet can play a part.

Other diseases that can affect the prostate

Apart from cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., there are two other main types of prostate disease that may cause similar symptoms, but they are non-cancerousMalignant, a tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.:

  • Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPHAn abbreviation for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate that may cause difficulty in passing urine.)
  • Prostatitis.

Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)

Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPHAn abbreviation for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate that may cause difficulty in passing urine.) is the most common prostate problem in men over the age of 50. As men get older, the prostate slowly gets bigger, putting pressure on the urethra and causing it to narrow. This can make it difficult to pass urine and empty the bladderThe organ that stores urine..

BPHAn abbreviation for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate that may cause difficulty in passing urine. can be treated with medication, herbal treatment or surgery, although many men do not need treatment. It does not lead to cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., although it is common for a man with prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. also to have BPHAn abbreviation for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate that may cause difficulty in passing urine..

Prostatitis

Prostatitis is the most common prostate problem in men under 50, although it can affect men at any age.

Acute prostatitis is caused by an infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. or inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the prostate, such as can result from sexually transmitted infections, and is usually quickly dealt with by a course of antibioticsMedication to treat infections caused by microbes (organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye), such as bacteria..

Chronic prostatitis is principally defined as pain in a man's pelvicRelating to the pelvis. region that persists for at least three months. Chronic prostatitis may be due to bacterial infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. or the result of an inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the prostate.

Symptoms may include frequent bladderThe organ that stores urine. infections, problems with urination, and persistent pain in the lower abdomenThe part of the body that contains the stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder and other organs., perineumThe part of the body between the anus (the lowest part of the gastrointestinal tract) and the opening of the urethra (the tube connecting the bladder to the outside of the body). (the area between the anusThe external opening of the back passage, the rectum. and the scrotum) or back.

Prostatitis is a very common condition and can be treated. However, as many of the symptoms are similar to those of prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., it is very important to tell your doctor if you think that you may have prostatitis.

Similar symptoms

Prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., BPHAn abbreviation for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate that may cause difficulty in passing urine. and prostatitis can all cause similar symptoms. Learn more about the symptoms and signs of prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body.. If you have any of these problems, it is best to go and see your doctor. These symptoms may be caused by prostate cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body., but can also be the result of non-cancerousMalignant, a tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. conditions.