Is prostate cancer serious?

Dr. Robert E. Reiter, MD

Prostate cancer is a very heterogeneous disease. It can range from extremely indolent and non-dangerous to life threatening. Approximately 30 to 50 percent of tumors in the prostate gland may not require aggressive treatment, but of course the remaining tumors pose variable threats to the individual and likely require treatment.

Prostate cancer, although common, is often treatable if caught early. It is one of the slower growing cancers, so most often, people can live for many years with prostate cancer. However, all cancers are to be taken seriously and, if allowed to progress to advanced stages, can be deadly.

After skin cancer, cancer of the prostate is the most common cancer in American men. This disease is extremely common and often produces no symptoms, because it usually (but not always) spreads quite slowly. (For prostate cancer at an early stage, the likelihood of surviving for 10 more years is almost 90 percent.)

Prostate cancers occur most frequently in older men. About 35,000 to 40,000 men die annually from prostate cancer, but this amounts to only about 3 to 4 percent of all deaths in men. Even so, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American men. Unfortunately, the rate has been increasing about 6 percent a year—oddly enough, because of greater efforts at early detection of the disease.

Most prostate cancers grow very slowly over many years, so most men die from other causes before their prostate cancer kills them. The key point that underlies all prostate cancer screening and treatment decisions is that the natural progression of prostate cancer is simply not understood well enough to allow doctors to tell which cases are likely to progress to death and which will never cause any problems.

The seriousness of prostate cancer depends on the stage at which it is diagnosed. Five-year survival rates can range from 100 percent for early stages that have yet to spread beyond the prostate to 30 percent for later stages in which the cancer has spread to surrounding organs. If the cancer has become metastatic, or spread to distant organs or the bones, then no cure is possible and death cannot be prevented, usually coming within three years of diagnosis.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.