What is prostate or prostate gland?
Prostate gland is a small walnut sized organ that sits between the bladder and the penis in men. (Prostate is absent in women.) Prostate gland secrets seminal fluids that are ejaculated along with the sperm (produced in the testicles) during ejaculation. The seminal fluids support and nourish the sperms. (To keep things simpler, we haven’t talked about the ‘seminal vesicles’ that are attached to the prostate. Seminal Vesicles and the prostate are a part of the male reproductive system.) The bladder is connected to the penis through the prostate. The urethra from the bladder runs through the prostate gland into the penis.
What is Prostate Cancer?
Prostate cancer is a form of cancer that develops inside the prostate gland. Prostate cancer is found to be the one of leading organs of cancer in large Indian cities such as Chennai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Bangalore and Mumbai. These cells can be benign (non cancerous) or cancerous. If the cells are non cancerous, they don’t cause any threat to life of the person. Such cells once removed usually don’t return / grow back.
On the other hand, cancerous cells in the prostate gland:
- Can be a threat to life if ignored and not treated on time.
- They can grow and spread to surrounding tissues and organs.
- They can grow further and even spread to the lymph nodes and travel and settle in other organs of the body (such as lungs etc). (This is called ‘metastasized state’).
- The tumors inside the prostate gland can be surgically removed but recurrence cannot be ruled out.
Prostate cancer cells overgrow and travel through the blood vessels or lymphatic system in the body. These cells get deposited in other organs such as lungs or bones inside the body and start replicating in those organs. In those cases, the cancer is still called prostate cancer of lungs or bones but not lung cancer or bone cancer. Irrespective of the organ the cancer cells get deposited, they damage the particular organ which can be fatal.
Symptoms of prostate cancer
Some symptoms of prostate cancer can resemble those of BPH (Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia) or enlarged prostate, urinary tract infection. Symptoms of prostate cancer include:
- Pain during ejaculation
- Pain in lower back, hips and upper thighs
- Frequent urination
- Painful or burning sensation while urinating
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Bone pain
Causes of prostate cancer
In short, it is not known. No one is sure how cancerous cells start developing inside the prostate. However, medical experts and urologists have identified the risk factors that could lead to the growth of cancerous cells and tumors inside the prostate.
Risk factors of prostate cancer include:
- With age, the cells inside the body age and the genetic material of the cells inside the prostate gland may get damaged. When cells with damaged DNA multiply, they can turn into unstoppable growth of cancerous cells.
- Ethnicity of Individual. African American men are at higher risk of developing prostate cancer than Asian and Hispanic men. The reason may be attributed to the genes or the food or their lifestyle.
- A family history of prostate cancer may be another risk factor for developing the same by succeeding generations.
- Smoking and consumption of alcohol. Though they are not the direct cause of cancer, they can kill the person with prostate cancer (or with any other cancer for that matter) sooner. Smoking hampers healing process of the body.
Other causes might include food habits; lifestyle (sedentary), environmental reasons that can increase the risk of prostate cancer.
Diagnosis of Prostate Cancer
There are mainly two types of screening (testing) methods to detect prostate cancer in a person.
- PSA test – Prostate Specific Antigen Blood Test.
- DRE – Digital Rectal Examination.
PSA Test – Prostate Specific Antigen Blood Test
The PSA Test is aimed at measuring the levels of the PSA (antigen can be proteins, peptides (amino acid chains), lipids etc that trigger an immune response so that the body can fight against the infection or the cancerous cells) in the blood. As the name suggests, PSA is produced by the prostate and prostate cancers.
Low and consistent levels of PSA in the blood may not mean any harm but if the PSA levels are rising significantly, that can indicate a problem with the prostate gland, possibly a cancer or enlarged prostate or prostatitis which is the inflammation of the prostate gland. As you can understand, PSA may not be a conclusive test to detect prostate cancer.
DRE – Digital Rectal Examination
The urologist inserts a gloved, lubricated finger through the anus of the person while he bends over or lies on his side with curled legs. An experienced urologist will be able to detect any abnormalities of the prostate by pressing through the rectum, as the prostate gland lies in front of the rectum.
PSA Test and DRE can help detect prostate cancer in the early stages when it is easy to treat. In some cases, PSA Test may produce false negatives despite the person having all the symptoms of prostate cancer. In such cases, the urologist may ask for a ‘biopsy’ wherein a small tissue from prostate is taken an observed under a microscope to look for cancerous cells.
Treatment of prostate cancer
Treatment options of prostate cancer depend on different factors including:
- The age and overall health of the person
- If the cancer cells are growing rapidly or at a slower pace.
- The current stage and grade of cancer. (Metastasized stage is considered to be the final stage of spread)
- The longer and shorter effects of the treatment methods. (Eg. Chemotherapy may have an effect on the immune system).
Typically, cancer treatment options include:
- Radiation therapy – where the tumour or the affected area is subjected to high energy waves that destroy the cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy – Medicine to kill the cancer cells may be given at specific intervals.
- Surgical removal of tumour
These options can be done in combination such as a surgical removal may be followed with chemotherapy to make sure that the remnants of the tumour don’t grow in size and are killed.