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What is prostate cancer?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Prostate cancer is a common cancer among men and can be difficult to detect in its early stages. It begins in the prostate and can spread to other parts of the body. The prostate is a small organ normally the size of a walnut that functions as part of the male reproductive system, producing and transporting semen.

This form of cancer primarily affects the male urinary and reproductive systems. Urinary problems can include difficulty starting and stopping urination or a weakened urine stream, feeling the need to urinate more than usual, blood in the urine, or a burning sensation during urination. Reproductive symptoms include difficulty achieving an erection or blood in the semen. Prostate cancer can also cause pain in the bones and muscles of the pelvic area such as the hips, thighs, and lower back, as well as swollen legs.

Prostate cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cells of the prostate gland. For unknown reasons, one or more cells become abnormal. Eventually these cells may spread and invade normal tissues. They can grow through the capsule of the prostate gland and invade tissues outside the gland and then spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system. This system circulates throughout the body in much the same way that blood circulates. Lymph is a clear fluid that contains tissue waste products and immune system cells. Most of the lymph vessels of the prostate lead to pelvic lymph nodes. These nodes are often the first sites of spreading prostate cancer that is no longer curable. From there they can multiply and spread to other organs of the body.

Doctors speak of four stages of the disease. The first is the earliest stage when it cannot yet be felt by a digital rectal exam (DRE). The second is when it can be felt on a DRE but is still thought to be confined to the prostate. The third stage is when it has spread into adjacent tissues but has not yet reached the lymph nodes. The final stage is when the cancer has gotten into the lymph nodes or beyond.

Most prostate cancers grow very slowly. Autopsy studies show that many elderly men who died of other causes also had cancerous cells in their prostates that were never suspected. Doubling times of most prostate cancers average about 4 years. But some prostate cancers can grow and spread quickly. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 1999 about 179,300 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed, and about 37,000 men will die of the disease in the United States.

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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.