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What Is Prostate Cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells in the body begin changing and multiplying out of control. These cells can form lumps of tissue called tumors. Cancer that starts in the prostate is called prostate cancer. Cancer can grow and spread beyond the prostate, threatening health and life.Closeup cross section of bladder, prostate, and rectum showing urethra going through prostate and seminal vesicle above prostate. Tumor is in prostate near rectum.

Understanding the Prostate

The prostate is a gland about the size and shape of a walnut. It surrounds the upper part of the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder, in men. The prostate produces most of the semen in which sperm travel. During orgasm, semen exits the body through the urethra.

When Prostate Cancer Forms

As a man ages, the cells of his prostate may change to form tumors or other growths. Some growths may be benign (not cancerous), but might still cause problems. Other growths may be cancerous:

  • Noncancerous growths. As a man ages, the prostate may grow larger. This condition is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). With BPH, extra prostate tissue often squeezes the urethra, causing symptoms such as difficulty urinating. But BPH does NOT lead to cancer.

  • Atypical cells (prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia, or PIN). Some cells don’t appear as typical, normal prostate cells. Although they are not cancer cells, they may indicate that cancer is likely to form.

  • Cancer. When abnormal prostate cells grow uncontrolled and start invading other tissues, they are called cancer cells. These cells may or may not produce symptoms. Some tumors can be felt during a physical exam, others cannot.

  • Cancer spread. Prostate cancer may spread to nearby organs. In some cases, the cancer spreads further to bones or organs in distant parts of the body. This is called metastasis.

Diagnosing Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer may not cause symptoms at first. Urinary problems often are not a sign of cancer, but of another condition. To find out if you have prostate cancer, your doctor must examine you and order tests. Tests help confirm a diagnosis of cancer. They also help give more information about a cancerous tumor. Tests include:

  • Prostate specific antigen (PSA) testing. PSA is a chemical made by prostate tissue. The PSA level (amount of PSA in the blood) is tested to evaluate a man’s risk for prostate cancer. In general, a high or rising PSA level may mean an increased cancer risk. PSA testing is also used to evaluate the success of cancer treatments.

  • Core needle biopsy. This test involves taking tissue samples from the prostate to provide more information about the cells. During the test, as you lie on your side, a small probe is inserted into the rectum. The probe sends an image of your prostate to a video monitor. With this image as a guide, the doctor uses a thin needle to remove tiny tissue samples from the prostate. You are given medications so you don’t feel pain during the test.

Online Medical Reviewer: de la Cruz, Marlene, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Eisenberg, Seth, RN, OCN
Last Review Date: 11/3/2011
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