Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK, with over 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year.
Prostate cancer usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs you have it for many years.
Symptoms often only become apparent when your prostate is large enough to affect the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis).
When this happens, you may notice things like an increased need to urinate, straining while urinating and a feeling that your bladder has not fully emptied.
These symptoms shouldn’t be ignored, but they do not mean you definitely have prostate cancer. It is more likely that they are caused by something else, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (also known as BPH or prostate enlargement ).
Read more about the symptoms of prostate cancer .
The prostate is a small gland in the pelvis found only in men. About the size of a satsuma, it's located between the penis and the bladder and surrounds the urethra.
The main function of the prostate is to help in the production of semen. It produces a thick white fluid that is mixed with the sperm produced by the testicles, to create semen.
The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown. However, certain things can increase your risk of developing the condition.
The chances of developing prostate cancer increase as you get older. Most cases develop in men aged 50 or older.
For reasons not yet understood, prostate cancer is more common in men of African-Caribbean or African descent, and less common in men of Asian descent.
Men who have first degree male relatives (such as a father or brother) affected by prostate cancer are also at slightly increased risk.
Read more about the causes of prostate cancer .
There is no single test for prostate cancer. All the tests used to help diagnose the condition have benefits and risks, which your doctor should discuss with you.
The most commonly used tests for prostate cancer are blood tests , a physical examination of your prostate (known as a digital rectal examination or DRE ) and a biopsy .
The blood test, known as a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, measures the level of PSA and may help detect early prostate cancer. Men are not routinely offered PSA tests to screen for prostate cancer, as results can be unreliable.
This is because the PSA blood test is not specific to prostate cancer. PSA can be raised due to a large non-cancerous growth of the prostate (BPH), a urinary tract infection or inflammation of the prostate, as well as prostate cancer. Raised PSA levels also cannot tell a doctor whether a man has life-threatening prostate cancer or not. This means a raised PSA can lead to unnecessary tests and treatment.
However, you can ask to be tested for prostate cancer once the benefits and risks have been explained to you.
Read more about diagnosing prostate cancer and PSA screening for prostate cancer .
For many men with prostate cancer, treatment is not immediately necessary.
If the cancer is at an early stage and not causing symptoms, a policy of "watchful waiting" or "active surveillance" may be adopted. This involves carefully monitoring your condition.
Some cases of prostate cancer can be cured if treated in the early stages. Treatments include surgically removing the prostate, radiotherapyand hormone therapy.
Some cases are only diagnosed at a later stage when the cancer has spread. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, typically the bones, it cannot be cured and treatment is focused on prolonging life and relieving symptoms.
All treatment options carry the risk of significant side effects, including erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence . For this reason, many men choose to delay treatment until there is a risk the cancer might spread.
Newer treatments, such as high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) or cryotherapy, aim to reduce these side effects. Some hospitals may offer them as an alternative to surgery, radiotherapy or hormone therapy. However, the long-term effectiveness of these treatments are not yet known.
Read more about treating prostate cancer .
As prostate cancer usually progresses very slowly, you can live for decades without symptoms or needing treatment.
Nevertheless, it can have an effect on your life. As well as causing physical problems such as erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence , a diagnosis of prostate cancer can understandably make you feel anxious or depressed .
You may find it beneficial to talk about the condition with your family, friends, a family doctor and other men with prostate cancer.
Financial support is also available if prostate cancer reduces your ability to work.
Read more about living with prostate cancer .
Prostate cancer does not normally cause symptoms until the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on the urethra.
This normally results in problems associated with urination. Symptoms can include:
Many men's prostates get larger as they get older due to a non-cancerous condition known as prostate enlargement or benign prostatic hyperplasia.
Symptoms that the cancer may have spread include bone and back pain, a loss of appetite, pain in the testicles and unexplained weight loss.
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It is not known exactly what causes prostate cancer, although a number of things can increase your risk of developing the condition.
In addition, some research has shown that prostate cancer rates appear to be lower in men who eat foods containing certain nutrients including lycopene, found in cooked tomatoes and other red fruit, and selenium, found in brazil nuts. However, more research is needed.
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If you have symptoms that could be caused by prostate cancer, you should visit your doctor.
There is no single, definitive test for prostate cancer, so your doctor will discuss the pros and cons of the various tests with you to try to avoid unnecessary anxiety.
Your doctor is likely to:
In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help doctors recognise the signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and refer people for the right tests faster. To find out if you should be referred for further tests for suspected prostate cancer, read the NICE 2015 guidelines on Suspected Cancer: Recognition and Referral.
PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland. All men have a small amount of PSA in their blood, and it increases with age.
Prostate cancer can increase the production of PSA, and so a PSA test looks for raised levels of PSA in the blood that may be a sign of the condition in its early stages.
However, PSA testing is not a specific test for prostate cancer. Most men who have prostate cancer will not have a raised PSA level. More than 65% of men with a raised PSA level will not have cancer, as PSA levels rise in all men as they get older.
Read more about PSA screening for prostate cancer .
The next step is a DRE, which can be done by your doctor.
During a DRE, your doctor will insert a lubricated and gloved finger into your rectum. The rectum is close to your prostate gland, so your doctor can check to feel if the surface of the gland has changed. This will feel a little uncomfortable, but should not be painful.
Prostate cancer can make the gland hard and bumpy. However, in most cases, the cancer causes no changes to the gland and a DRE may not be able to detect the cancer.
DRE is useful in ruling out prostate enlargement caused by benign prostatic hyperplasia, as this causes the gland to feel firm and smooth.
Your doctor will assess your risk of having prostate cancer based on a number of factors, including your PSA levels, the results of your DRE, and your age, family history and ethnic group. If you are at risk, you should be referred to hospital to discuss the options of further tests.
The most commonly used test is a transrectal ultrasound-guided biopsy (TRUS). A biopsy may also be taken during a cystoscopy examinationor through the skin behind the testicles (perineum).
During a TRUS biopsy, an ultrasound probe (a machine that uses sound waves to build a picture of the inside of your body) is inserted into your rectum. This allows the doctor or specialist nurse to see exactly where to pass a needle through the wall of your rectum to take small samples of tissue from your prostate.
The procedure can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful, so you may be given a local anaesthetic to minimise any discomfort. As with any procedure, there may be complications, including bleeding and infection.
Although it is more reliable than a PSA test, the TRUS biopsy can have problems. It can miss up to one in five cancers, because the location of the cancer is unknown when it is carried out. The doctors can see the prostate using the ultrasound scan, but not the tumour(s) if they are present.
You may need another biopsy if your symptoms persist, or your PSA level continues to rise. Your doctor may request an MRI scan of the prostate before another biopsy.
The TRUS biopsy can also find small low-risk cancers that do not need treatment, but may cause you anxiety. Many men often choose to undergo surgery or radiotherapy that may not benefit them but causes side effects, such as incontinence and erectile dysfunction .
The samples of tissue from the biopsy are studied in a laboratory. If cancerous cells are found, they can be studied further to see how quickly the cancer will spread. This process is known as "staging and grading" and helps doctors to decide which treatment is the most appropriate.
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If there is a significant chance the cancer has spread from your prostate to other parts of the body, further tests may be recommended.
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Doctors will use the results of your prostate examination, biopsy and scans to identify the "stage" of your prostate cancer (how far the cancer has spread). The stage of the cancer will determine which types of treatments will be necessary.
A widely used method of staging is a number staging system. The stages are:
If prostate cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, the chances of survival are generally good. About 90% of men diagnosed at stages 1 or 2 will live at least five more years and 65-90% will live for at least 10 more years.
If you are diagnosed with stage 3 prostate cancer, you have a 70-80% of chance of living for at least five more years.
However, if you are diagnosed when your prostate cancer has reached stage 4, there is only a 30% chance you will live for at least five more years.
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Watchful waiting is often recommended for older men when it is unlikely that the cancer will affect your natural life span.
If the cancer is in its early stages and not causing symptoms, you may decide to delay treatment, and wait to see if any symptoms of progressive cancer develop. If this happens, pain medication and hormone medication (see below) to control prostate cancer are usually used.
Watchful waiting may also be recommended for people with a higher risk of prostate cancer if:
In this case, hormone treatment may be started if there are symptoms caused by the prostate cancer.
Active surveillance aims to avoid unnecessary treatment of harmless cancers, while still providing timely treatment for men who need it.
When they are diagnosed, we know that around half to two-thirds of men with low-risk prostate cancer do not need treatment. Surveillance is a safe strategy that provides a period of observation to gather extra information over time to see whether the disease is changing.
Active surveillance involves you having regular PSA tests and often several biopsies to ensure any signs of progression are found as early as possible. Sometimes, MRI scans may also be carried out. If these tests reveal the cancer is changing or progressing, you can then make a decision about further treatment.
About one in three men who undergo surveillance will later have treatment. This does not mean they made the wrong initial decision. Good evidence shows that active surveillance is safe over an average of six years. Men undergoing active surveillance will have delayed any treatment-related side effects, and those who eventually need treatment will be reassured that it was necessary.
A radical prostatectomy is the surgical removal of your prostate gland. This treatment is an option for curing localised prostate cancer and locally-advanced prostate cancer.
Like any operation, this surgery carries some risks, and there may be some side effects. These are outlined below.
For many men, having a radical prostatectomy will get rid of the cancer cells. However, for around one in three men, the cancer cells may not be fully removed, and the cancer cells may return some time after the operation.
Studies have shown that radiotherapy after prostate removal surgery may increase the chances of a cure, although research is still being carried out into when it should be used after surgery.
After a radical prostatectomy, you will no longer ejaculate during sex. This means that you will not be able to have a child through sexual intercourse. You may want to ask your doctors about storing a sperm sample before the operation, so it can be used later for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) .
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Radiotherapy involves using radiation to kill cancerous cells. This treatment is an option for curing localised prostate cancer and locally-advanced prostate cancer. Radiotherapy can also be used to slow the progression of metastatic prostate cancer and relieve symptoms.
Radiotherapy is normally given as an outpatient at a hospital near you. It is done in short sessions for five days a week, for four to eight weeks. There are short-term and long-term side effects associated with radiotherapy.
You may receive hormone therapy before undergoing radiotherapy to increase the chance of successful treatment. Hormone therapy may also be recommended after radiotherapy to reduce the chances of cancerous cells returning.
Short-term effects of radiotherapy can include:
Possible long-term side effects can include:
As with radical prostatectomy, there is a one-in-three chance the cancer will return. In these cases, medication is usually used to control the cancer instead of surgery. This is because there is a higher risk of complications from surgery in men who have previously had radiotherapy.
Some hospitals now offer new minimally invasive treatments if radiotherapy fails to work, sometimes as part of a clinical trial. These new treatments are called high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) and cryotherapy. These treatments have fewer side effects, but the long-term outcomes are not yet known.
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Brachytherapy is a form of radiotherapy where the radiation dose is delivered inside the prostate gland. It is also known as internal or interstitial radiotherapy.
The radiation can be delivered using a number of tiny radioactive seeds that are surgically implanted into the tumour. This is called low dose-rate brachytherapy.
The radiation can also be delivered through hollow, thin needles placed inside the prostate. This is calld high dose-rate brachytherapy.
This method has the advantage of delivering a high dose of radiation to the prostate, while minimising damage to other tissues. However, the risk of sexual dysfunction and urinary problems is the same as with radiotherapy, although the risk of bowel problems is slightly lower.
Hormone therapy is often used in combination with radiotherapy. For example, you may receive hormone therapy before undergoing radiotherapy to increase the chance of a successful treatment. Hormone therapy may also be recommended after radiotherapy to reduce the chances of cancerous cells returning.
Hormone therapy alone should not normally be used to treat localised prostate cancer in men who are fit and willing to receive surgery or radiotherapy. This is because it does not cure the cancer on its own. Hormone therapy can be used to slow the progression of advanced prostate cancer and relieve symptoms.
Hormones control the growth of cells in the prostate. In particular, prostate cancer needs the hormone testosterone to grow. The purpose of hormone therapy is to block the effects of testosterone, either by stopping its production or by stopping your body being able to use testosterone.
Hormone therapy can be given as:
The main side effects of hormone treatment are caused by their effects on testosterone. They usually go away when treatment stops. They include loss of sex drive and erectile dysfunction (this is more common with LHRH agonists than anti-androgens).
Other possible side effects include:
An alternative to hormone therapy is to surgically remove the testicles, called orchidectomy. The operation does not cure prostate cancer, but by removing the testosterone, it controls the growth of the cancer and its symptoms. However, many men prefer to have hormone treatment to block the effects of testosterone.
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During TURP, a thin metal wire with a loop at the end is inserted into your urethra (the tube that carries urine from your bladder to your penis) and pieces of the prostate are removed.
This is carried out under general anaesthetic or a spinal anaesthetic ( epidural ).
This is done to relieve pressure from the urethra to treat any problematic symptoms you may have with urination. It does not cure the cancer.
Read more information about transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) .
HIFU is sometimes used to treat men with localised prostate cancer that has not spread beyond their prostate.
An ultrasound probe inserted into the rectum releases high-frequency sound waves through the wall of the rectum. These sound waves kill cancer cells in the prostate gland by heating them to a high temperature.
The risk of side effects from HIFU is usually lower than other treatments.
However, possible effects can include impotence (in five to 10 in every 100 men) or urinary incontinence (in less than one in every 100 men). Back passage problems are rare.
Fistulas (an abnormal channel between the urinary system and rectum) are also rare, affecting less than one in every 500 men. This is because the treatment targets the cancer area only and not the whole prostate.
However, HIFU treatment is still going through clinical trials for prostate cancer. In some cases, doctors can carry out HIFU treatment outside of clinical trials. HIFU is not widely available and its long-term effectiveness has not yet been conclusively proven.
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Cryotherapy is a method of killing cancer cells by freezing them. It is sometimes used to treat men with localised prostate cancer that has not spread beyond their prostate gland.
Tiny probes called cryoneedles are inserted into the prostate gland through the wall of the rectum. They freeze the prostate gland and kill the cancer cells, but some normal cells also die.
The aim is to kill cancer cells while causing as little damage as possible to healthy cells. The side effects of cryotherapy can include:
It is rare for cryotherapy to cause rectal problems or fistulas.
Cryotherapy is still undergoing clinical trials for prostate cancer. In some cases, doctors can carry out cryotherapy treatment outside of clinical trials. It is not widely available and its long-term effectiveness has not yet been conclusively proven.
If the cancer has reached an advanced stage, it is no longer possible to cure it. However, it may be possible to slow its progression, prolong your life and relieve symptoms.
Treatment options include:
If the cancer has spread to your bones, medicines called bisphosphonates may be used. Bisphosphonates help reduce bone pain and bone loss.
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Chemotherapy is mainly used to treat prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (metastatic prostate cancer) and which is not responding to hormone therapy.
Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells by interfering with the way they multiply. Chemotherapy does not cure prostate cancer, but can keep it under control and reduce symptoms (such as pain) so everyday life is less affected.
The main side effects of chemotherapy are caused by their effects on healthy cells, such as immune cells. They include infections, tiredness, hair loss, sore mouth, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. Many of these side effects can be prevented or controlled with other medicines, which your doctor can prescribe for you.
Steroid tablets are used when hormone therapy no longer works because the cancer is resistant to it. This is called hormone-refractory cancer.
Steroids can be used to try to shrink the tumour and stop it from growing. The most effective steroid treatment is dexamethasone.
There are a number of new medications that could be used if hormones and chemotherapy fail. Your medical team can tell you if these are suitable and available for you.
NICE has recently issued guidance on medications called abiraterone and enzalutamide. Both abiraterone and enzalutamide may be used to treat men with metastatic prostate cancer that no longer responds to the chemotherapy drug docetaxel.
Read the NICE guidelines on:
As many of the treatments above have unpleasant side effects that can affect your quality of life, you may decide against treatment. This make be especially true if you are at an age when you feel that treating the cancer is unlikely to significantly extend your life expectancy.
This is entirely your decision, and your MDT will respect it.
If you decide not to have treatment, your doctor and hospital team will still give you support and pain relief. This is called palliative care. Support is also available for your family and friends.
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There is currently no screening programme for prostate cancer in the UK. This is because it has not been proved that the benefits would outweigh the risks.
Routinely screening all men to check their prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels is a controversial subject in the international medical community.
There are several reasons for this:
More research is needed to determine whether a screening programme would provide men with more benefit than harm.
One European study showed deaths from prostate cancer could be reduced by 20% if there was a screening programme, but this needs to be balanced against the harms of:
To save one life from prostate cancer, 27 men would have to be diagnosed with it. A recent large study in America found no reduction in the number of deaths.
As there are many reasons why PSA levels may be high at any one time, researchers are trying to make the PSA test, or a variation of it, more accurate. This includes looking at how PSA levels change over time and comparing the PSA level to prostate size.
Researchers are also looking at whether new imaging tests, such as MRI scans, or other blood and urine tests, can be used to decide which men with an elevated PSA should have a biopsy.
Instead of a national screening programme, there is an informed choice programme called prostate cancer risk management for healthy men aged 50 or over who ask their doctor about PSA testing. It aims to give men good information on the pros and cons of a PSA test.
If you're a man aged 50 or over and decide to have your PSA levels tested after talking to your doctor, they will be able to arrange for it to be carried out for free on the NHS.
If results show you have a raised level of PSA, your doctor may suggest further tests.
Because the results of the PSA test are not as reliable as doctors would like, other tests and investigations are needed to diagnose prostate cancer.
A PSA test cannot identify prostate cancer on its own, and changes in PSA levels alone are not a good reason to start treatment.
If you are thinking about asking for a PSA test, it is important that you first discuss whether it is right for you with your doctor so you understand what the results might mean.
The Prostate Cancer Risk Management Programme has information on the risks and benefits of the PSA test to help you decide whether or not to have it.
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If you have no symptoms, prostate cancer should have little or no effect on your everyday activities. You should be able to work, care for your family, carry on your usual social and leisure activities, and look after yourself. However, you may be understandably worried about your future. This may make you feel anxious or depressed , and affect your sleep.
If your prostate cancer progresses, you may not feel well enough to do all the things you used to. After an operation or other treatment, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, you will probably feel tired and need time to recover.
If you have advanced prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of your body, you may have symptoms that slow you down and make it difficult to do things. You may have to reduce your working hours or stop working altogether.
Whatever stage your prostate cancer has reached, try to give yourself time to do the things you enjoy and spend time with those who care about you.
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If you have erectile dysfunction , speak to your doctor. It may be possible to treat you with a type of medicine known as phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors (PDE5). PDE5s work by increasing the blood supply to your penis.
The most commonly used PDE5 is sildenafil (Viagra). Other PDE5s are available if sildenafil is not effective.
Another alternative is a device called a vacuum pump. It is a simple tube connected to a pump. You place your penis in the tube and then pump out all the air. This creates a vacuum, which causes the blood to rush to your penis. You then place a rubber ring around the base of your penis. This keeps the blood in place and allows you to maintain an erection for around 30 minutes.
If your urinary incontinence is mild, you may be able to control it by learning some simple exercises. Pelvic floor exercises can strengthen your control over your bladder.
To carry out pelvic floor exercises:
If your urinary incontinence is more severe, it may be possible to treat it with surgery. This would involve implanting an artificial sphincter – a sphincter is a muscle used to control the bladder.
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Being diagnosed with prostate cancer often brings families and friends closer, although it can put pressure on relationships too.
Most people want to help, though they may not know what to do. A few people find it hard to talk to someone with prostate cancer, and may try to avoid them. Being open and honest about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put others at ease. But do not feel shy about telling people that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you need.
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If you have questions, your doctor or nurse may be able to reassure you, or you may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or specialist telephone helpline. Your doctor surgery will have information on these.
Some men find it helpful to talk to other men with prostate cancer at a local support group or through an internet chat room.
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If you have to reduce or stop work because of your prostate cancer, you may find it hard to cope financially. If you have prostate cancer or are caring for someone with prostate cancer, you may be entitled to financial support.
Find out early what help is available to you. Speak to the social worker at your hospital, who can give you the information you need.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.