Prostate Cancer

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Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer among men in the United States, and more than 192,000 cases were diagnosed in 2009. It's second only to lung cancer as a cause of cancer deaths among men in this country.

Chances are good you know someone who has prostate cancer or has been treated for it. More than 2 million men in the United States—one man in every six—have been diagnosed with the disease.

These figures are declining, thanks to awareness and screening. If found early, prostate cancer has a good chance for cure. In fact, prostate cancer sometimes does not pose a significant threat to a man's life and can be observed carefully instead of treated immediately.

This section contains more information on:

  • Need-to-know anatomy
  • Causes
  • Risk factors
  • Need-to-know anatomy

    The prostate is a walnut-size gland in the male reproductive system. Just below the bladder and in front of the rectum, it surrounds part of the urethra, a tube that empties urine from the bladder. The prostate helps produce semen and nourish sperm.

    The prostate begins to develop while a baby is in his mother's womb. Fueled by androgens (male hormones), it continues to grow until adulthood.

    Sometimes, the part of the prostate around the urethra may keep growing, causing benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). While this condition may interfere with passing urine and needs to be treated, it is not cancer.

    Almost all prostate cancers begin in the gland cells of the prostate and are known as adenocarcinomas.

    Pre-cancerous changes of the prostate: By age 50, about half of all men have small changes in the size and shape of the cells in the prostate. This is called prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PIN).

    Some research has indicated these cellular changes are early prostate cancer that may develop into cancer. But this is controversial, and preventive treatment is not recommended.

    If PIN is present, the best strategy is to be certain a thorough biopsy procedure shows no invasive cancer. If PIN is the only finding, then careful follow-up screening with a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and digital rectal examination (DRE) is recommended.


    Prostate cancer occurs when cells in the prostate grow and multiply uncontrollably, damaging surrounding tissue and interfering with the normal function of the prostate. The cells can then spread to other parts of the body.

    As with many cancers, the exact causes of prostate cancer are not known.

    • Five to 10 percent of prostate cancers seem to be hereditary.
    • Some researchers believe higher than normal levels of androgen or a hormone called IGF-1 may play a part.
    • Studies across international populations show widely different rates of prostate cancer and indicate a high-fat (i.e., Western) diet increases risk.
    • Research is continuing around the world to find the origins of prostate cancer.

      Risk factors

      While the causes of prostate cancer are not known, certain risk factors seem to make it more likely men will develop the disease. These include:

      • Age: This is the most important risk factor. Most men who develop prostate cancer are older than 50. About two of every three prostate cancers are diagnosed in men older than 65.
      • Family history: Risk is higher when other members of your family (especially father, brother, son) have or had prostate cancer, especially if they were young when they developed it.
      • Race: African-American men have nearly double the risk of prostate cancer as white men. It is less common among Asian-American, Hispanic, and American Indian men.
      • Diet: A high-fat diet, particularly a diet high in animal fats, may increase risk. Diets high in fruits and vegetables may decrease risk.
      • Nationality: Prostate cancer is more prevalent in North America and northwestern Europe than other parts of the world.
      • Other possible risk factors: Although it has not been proven, some research suggests that inflammation of the prostate (prostatitis) may play a role in prostate cancer. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are being investigated as possible risk factors as well.
      • If you have risk factors for prostate cancer, be sure to discuss them with your health care provider.

        Last reviewed on 5/27/10

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