Is It Prostate Cancer or Something Else?

Symptoms can be subtle. Find out what to watch for—and when.

man speaking with clinician

Updated on June 6, 2023.

Prostate cancer, which occurs when cells in the prostate gland start to grow uncontrollably, is the second most common cancer among men in the United States, behind only skin cancer. One out of every nine men will be diagnosed with the cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). 

While the statistics may sound alarming, most men with prostate cancer will not die as a result of the disease. Still, it is a potentially serious illness that could require monitoring or treatment. That’s why it’s important to become familiar with symptoms that may warrant a call to your healthcare provider (HCP).

What are the symptoms of prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer typically doesn’t have observable symptoms at first. “There are no clear symptoms associated with early or organ-confined prostate cancer,” says John McGill, MD, a urologist in Georgia. Cancers at this stage are usually discovered as a result of screening.

Once symptoms do appear, it means the cancer is already at an advanced stage. 

“In advanced prostate cancer, men may develop bone pain, blood in the urine, or obstruction of the bladder or ureters, the thin tubes that drain urine from the kidneys,” says Dr. McGill. Other prostate cancer symptoms may include frequent urination, foot or leg numbness, and erectile dysfunction.

Why are symptoms confusing?

The later symptoms of prostate cancer aren’t necessarily unique to the disease. Many other conditions have similar warning signs, making it challenging to diagnose. 

Some of the symptoms that could suggest other illnesses include:

  • Bone pain: “Differentiating bone pain from general aches and pains can be quite difficult,” says McGill. “This is one reason why bone pain by itself does not necessarily mean a person has advanced prostate cancer.” 
  • Bloody urine: Hematuria, or blood in the urine, may indicate advanced prostate cancer, but it can also indicate conditions like kidney stones, urinary tract infections, or abnormal growths in the kidneys, ureters, or bladder.
  • Urination problems: Trouble urinating is more likely a sign of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a non-cancerous condition related to controlled prostate growth, according to the ACS.

If you experience any of these symptoms or combination of these symptoms, see your HCP right away, regardless of the recommended age for screening. Your HCP will decide what kind of tests you might need to determine a diagnosis.

How is prostate cancer diagnosed?

Certain tests can help detect prostate cancer, even in early stages. These include the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and digital rectal exam (DRE). If these show abnormalities, a prostate biopsy—a procedure that involves removing small samples of the prostate to examine under a microscope—may be recommended.

But prostate cancer diagnosis can be complicated, says McGill. Early screenings like the PSA test and DRE may not be completely accurate. They may produce false-positive results, which suggest cancer when it isn’t present. They may also produce false-negative results, indicating that a patient doesn’t have cancer when they really do.

Sometimes, when elevated PSA levels and a biopsy signal prostate cancer, a patient may have treatment like radiation or surgery. But in very-low-risk and low-risk cases, this treatment might be unnecessary, as the disease may progress so slowly that it would never cause significant problems. In fact, because both radiation and surgery have side effects of their own, treatment may affect quality of life more than the prostate cancer itself. 

The bottom line on prostate health

McGill says staying up to date with urology and other healthcare appointments is the best way to keep your prostate health in check. This may involve prostate cancer screening, for which recommendations vary by age and risk.

  • For average-risk men between ages 55 and 69, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends discussing the risks and benefits of screening with a clinician. The decision to be screened is up to the individual. Routine screening is not recommended for average-risk men aged 70 and older.
  • Those at increased risk, who include African American men and people with a first-degree family history of early prostate cancer (brother or father), should begin this conversation sooner, according to the ACS.

Just remember: Always report new, severe, or unusual symptoms to an HCP, even if you are outside the recommended ages for screening.

Article sources open article sources

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts for Men. Last revised February 24, 2023.
American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Prostate Cancer. Last revised January 12, 2023.
American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Prostate Cancer. August 1, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Is Prostate Cancer Diagnosed? August 25, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Can Prostate Cancer Be Found Early? August 1, 2019.
American Urological Association. Patient Access to PSA Testing. Accessed June 2, 2023.
American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Recommendations for Prostate Cancer Early Detection. Last revised February 24, 2023.

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