It's a gland that's only the size of a walnut. Despite its diminutive size, the prostate is a gland commonly affected by cancer and the risk of prostate malignancy goes up with age. September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, a time to increase your understanding of this common cancer that will affect one out of six men at some point in their life. Not only is it the number one cause of cancer in males, it's the second leading cause of prostate cancer death, exceeded only by lung cancer. That's why it's important to be aware of the symptoms of prostate cancer.
Symptoms of Prostate Cancer
As a physician, my job is to help patients reduce their risk of disease by making the appropriate lifestyle changes and getting screening tests when available. I also strive to make them more aware of their bodies so they can recognize symptoms of prostate cancer and other common health problems. The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis.
Unfortunately, prostate cancer doesn't always have symptoms in its early stages. This means you can have an early prostate malignancy without being aware of it. In fact, almost half of all men diagnosed with prostate cancer have no symptoms. It's not until the prostate gland starts to enlarge and press on the tissues that surround it that symptoms become noticeable. As prostate cancer grows, it usually causes changes in urinary flow. Some of the most common symptoms are difficulty starting or stopping the flow of urine, the urge to urinate more often, the need to urinate several times at night, a sense of urinary urgency, a weak urine stream, or blood in the urine. Men with a growing prostate malignancy may also have problems with ejaculation or have blood in their semen.
Other Conditions Can Cause Similar Symptoms
Having these symptoms doesn't always mean you have prostate cancer. They can appear with other medical conditions including bladder infections, kidney stones, or BPH, a benign enlargement of the prostate. On the other hand, if you have any of them, see your doctor immediately. As prostate cancer becomes more advanced, symptoms like weight loss, fatigue, back pain, leg pain or weakness, leg swelling, or constipation can appear. These symptoms usually occur after weeks or months of problems with urination. So, changes in urinary flow should raise red flags that motivate you to see your doctor right away.
The Role of Prostate Cancer Screening
The incidence of prostate cancer increases after the age of 50, but can develop earlier in men at higher genetic risk. That's why all men should talk to their doctors about their risk, especially if they have a family history of the disease. There's currently a great deal of controversy about prostate cancer screening. A blood test is available that measures levels of a protein called PSA -- which goes up in prostate cancer -- and is sometimes used as a screening test. The problem is PSA also rises with other conditions, like benign enlargement of the prostate, so it isn't very specific. Doing this test can lead to over-diagnosis of prostate cancer and unnecessary treatments. Some prostate cancers are so slow growing that a man with it will die of other causes before prostate cancer becomes a problem. That's why a growing number of experts recommend against routine prostate cancer screening.
With so much controversy, many physicians no longer recommend screening all men for prostate cancer. That means it's important to be aware of possible prostate cancer symptoms and report them to your doctor. If you're male, and especially if you have a family history of the disease, sit down with your doctor and discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening. Based on your family history and risk for the disease, they may recommend for or against prostate cancer screening.