Prostate cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer among males, affects 1 in 6 men over the course of their lifetime. Fortunately, there are very effective treatment methods available for this form of cancer, dropping the mortality rate in men to roughly 1 in 36 individuals. Even so, given that this disease kills more than 26,000 men each year in the United States alone, it is critical to understand the details of this chronic disease, including its causes, symptoms and potential treatment options.
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What is Prostate Cancer?
Prostate cancer is similar to many other cancers, which occurs when cells begin to grow out of control. The prostate is an important gland in the male anatomy, as it produces some of the fluid in semen and helps control the muscle contractions during ejaculation. It surrounds the urethra and is located below the bladder. Despite being the size of a walnut or so in younger men, it can increase in size significantly as men age. This gland is where the cells can begin to grow out of control, typically in the form of adenocarcinoma. While there are a number of other varieties of prostate cancer, including sarcomas and neuroendocrine tumors, adenocarcinoma is by far the most common form.
The reason prostate cancer can be so deadly is that there are very few signs or symptoms to the disease as it forms. An enlarged or inflamed prostate can be an indicator but these symptoms can also happen for many other reasons. Some men can live for years with prostate cancer and experience no ill effects, perhaps even dying from other causes before doctors ever realize that prostate cancer is present. Since there are no early-warning signals, annual screenings for men of a certain age is highly recommended, typically once you pass the age of 50.
There are various tests that can be conducted following a prostate biopsy that can determine whether you have developed prostate cancer, or if you are merely experiencing a pre-cancerous condition. These tests will determine the level of change in the prostate as a means of identifying cancerous growth. Small changes in the pattern of cells in the prostate are not necessarily dangerous, and may not lead to prostate cancer. If there are more significant changes in the cell pattern, then your chances of having prostate cancer are significantly higher.
Symptoms of Prostate Cancer
Some of the major symptoms of prostate cancer include difficulties with urination, sexual side effects, and inflammation in certain parts of the body. The vagueness of the symptoms, and their similarity to symptoms of other conditions, is what makes this form of cancer so difficult to catch early.
Urination: The first signs of prostate cancer that many men experience involves difficulty in urinating and painful or burning sensations while urinating, or the constant need to go to the bathroom. Men with early stages of prostate cancer also struggle to start or stop urination, and may experience interrupted flow or uncontrolled dribbling. This is due to the inflamed prostate gland’s impact on the urethra.
Sexual Side Effects: When it comes to sex, men with prostate cancer may have difficult gaining or maintaining an erection, or it may be painful when they ejaculate. There also might be blood in the semen or urine.
Inflammation and Pain: Some of the peripheral symptoms may include soreness or stiffness in the back, hips, groin or lower abdomen, as the inflammation of the prostate gland can be quite painful.
Note: While these symptoms could be caused by other conditions, and don’t necessarily mean you have prostate cancer, it is best to speak with a doctor about these symptoms if they become chronic.
Causes of Prostate Cancer
When it comes to prostate cancer, there is not a single cause that experts can point to, but there are quite a few risk factors that can increase your chances, such as obesity, inherited gene mutations, age, diet, exercise, ethnic background, and acquired gene mutations.
Obesity: Research has linked obesity and the occurrence of prostate cancer, likely due to the increase inflammation and oxidative stress that obesity can cause in the body, in addition to the cancerous impact of excess adipose fat in the gut, which is very close to the bladder and prostate gland.
Inherited Gene Mutations: A number of potential inherited genetic connections have been made for prostate cancer, including HOXB13, RNASEL, BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes control the elimination of abnormal cells from the body, repair mistakes in cellular DNA and proper development/function of the prostate gland. If any of these genes are mutated or mismatched, your risk of developing prostate cancer is far greater, as your body’s genetic mechanisms to protect itself won’t be in place.
Acquired Gene Mutations: Not all mutations come from a family history, and there are some cases of genetic mutation later in life causing prostate cancer, such as exposure to radiation, hormone imbalances that can stimulate the overgrowth of cancerous cells, or normal cellular mutations that remain unchecked in the body. Many experts also believe that prostate inflammation will increase your risk of prostate cancer, as inflammation can impair cellular ability to copy itself accurately, leading to mutations.
Diet: Your diet is an extremely important factor in all forms of cancer, primarily because your diet can provide your body with the antioxidants and nutrients it needs to fight cancerous growth and neutralize the effects of free radicals. For example, a diet rich in calcium has been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer, while one focused on vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains has been connected to a lower risk of this cancer.
Exercise: Remaining active will help to stimulate the body’s metabolism and counter obesity, while also releasing proper levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in the body. By staying in shape, you reduce your risk of chronic inflammation in the body, lower your chances of becoming obese, and keep your immune system in the best possible condition.
Ethnic Background: Studies have shown that African men are at greater risk of prostate cancer than Caucasian men; as many as 1 in 5 men of African descent will suffer from prostate cancer, versus only 1 in 6 Caucasian men. For this reason, men of African descent are encouraged to begin regular screenings as early as age 40.
Age: As we age, our risk for cancer inherently rises, as cellular replacement happens slower, and our immune system doesn’t necessarily function as effectively. By age 80, it is believed that nearly 80% of men have some level of prostate cancer, although many of those cases are pre-cancerous, or do not require aggressive treatment.
Prostate Cancer Treatments
The most common forms of prostate cancer treatment include radiation therapy, surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, vaccine treatments, bone-directed treatment, cryotherapy and active monitoring.
If any pre-cancerous or suspicious symptoms arise, many doctors choose to take a close monitoring approach, scheduling screenings for every 3 to 6 months, so if cancer arises, more aggressive treatment can be started immediately.
This minimally invasive procedure involves releasing cold gases into the prostate gland to freeze and kill the cancer cells. This is typically used as a second line of treatment following radiation therapy, if it is unsuccessful.
A radical prostatectomy is a solution for some men with prostate cancer, if the cancer hasn’t spread outside of that gland. This is basically the complete removal of the prostate gland and some surrounding tissue, cutting out the cancer at its source.
This is a popular option if the cancer is discovered early and can be eliminated from within the prostate. High-energy beams are used to kill cancerous cells in this procedure, which can also work if the cancer returns after a prostatectomy has been completed.
The goal of this approach is to suppress certain hormones that can stimulate the unchecked growth of cancerous cells, namely androgens. This hormone therapy can have numerous unwanted side effects but can successfully stop the growth of cancer in the prostate.
If your prostate cancer has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy is an excellent option, wherein anti-cancer drugs are pumped into the bloodstream, thereby treating cancer in many areas of the body.
This specifically designed vaccine is able to stimulate the body to solely target prostate cancer cells that may still be present in the body. This is favored for patients who have cancer, but aren’t showing any notable signs or symptoms, and has less side effects than many other treatment options.
Bone Directed Treatment
Once a cancer begins to metastasize, one of the first places it will attack is the bones and in the case of prostate cancer, this can happen rapidly. Bone-directed treatment is intended to stop the spread of cancer, more than addressing the initial occurrence in the prostate.
At a certain stage of cancer care, when no other treatments are left, palliative therapy is intended to make the patient as comfortable as possible in their final months.