- What is prostate cancer?
- Finding prostate cancer early
- American Cancer Society recommendations for prostate cancer early detection
- What tests can detect prostate cancer?
- What if the test results aren`t normal?
- What are the signs and symptoms of prostate cancer?
- What are the risk factors for prostate cancer?
- Can prostate cancer be prevented?
- Insurance coverage for prostate cancer screening
- Additional resources
What is prostate cancer?
To understand prostate cancer, it helps to know something about the prostate and nearby structures in the body. The prostate is a gland found only in males. It is located in front of the rectum and below the urinary bladder. The size of the prostate varies with age. In younger men, it is about the size of a walnut, but it can be much larger in older men.
The prostate's job is to make some of the fluid that protects and nourishes sperm cells in semen, making the semen more liquid. Just behind the prostate are glands called seminal vesicles that make most of the fluid for semen. The urethra, which is the tube that carries urine and semen out of the body through the penis, goes through the center of the prostate.
The prostate starts to develop before birth. It grows rapidly during puberty, fueled by male hormones (called androgens) in the body. The main androgen, testosterone, is made in the testicles. The enzyme 5-alpha reductase converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is the main hormone that signals the prostate to grow.
The prostate usually stays at about the same size or grows slowly in adults, as long as male hormones are present.
Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
The inner part of the prostate (around the urethra) often keeps growing as men get older, which can lead to a common condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). In BPH, the prostate tissue can press on the urethra, leading to problems passing urine.
BPH is not cancer and does not develop into cancer. But it can be a serious medical problem for some men. If it requires treatment, medicines can often be used to shrink the size of the prostate or to relax the muscles within it, which usually helps with urine flow. If medicines aren't helpful, some type of surgery, such as a transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) may be needed.
Several types of cells are found in the prostate, but almost all prostate cancers develop from the gland cells. Gland cells make the prostate fluid that is added to the semen. The medical term for a cancer that starts in gland cells is adenocarcinoma.
Other types of cancer can also start in the prostate gland, including sarcomas, small cell carcinomas, and transitional cell carcinomas. But these other types of prostate cancer are so rare that if you have prostate cancer it is almost certain to be an adenocarcinoma.
Some prostate cancers can grow and spread quickly, but most of them grow slowly. In fact, autopsy studies show that many older men (and even some younger men) who died of other diseases also had prostate cancer that never affected them during their lives. In many cases neither they nor their doctors even knew they had it.
Last Medical Review: 08/28/2013
Last Revised: 02/25/2014