ARCHIVED - What should I know about prostate cancer?


Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian men. The prostate is part of a man's reproductive system. It is the size of a large walnut and is located just below the bladder.

What causes prostate cancer?

There is no single cause of prostate cancer, but some factors may increase the risk of developing it:

  • Age: particularly after 60 years of age when over 80% of cases occur. Prostate cancer is uncommon in men under 50.
  • Family history of prostate cancer.
  • African ancestry.

Other possible risk factors under examination include:

  • Obesity.
  • Diet high in fat.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Working with cadmium.

Are there screening tests for this type of cancer?

All men over the age of 50 years should talk to their doctors about the potential benefits and risks of early detection of prostate cancer using the Prostate Specific Antigen test (PSA) and the Digital Rectal Examination test (DRE).

Men who are at higher risk because of family history or men of African ancestry should discuss the need for testing at an earlier age.

Insufficient evidence exists over whether the benefits of screening for prostate cancer outweigh the risks involved. There is no conclusive evidence that screening of asymptomatic men reduces mortality from the disease. At the same time, early diagnosis and treatment of cancers, which in many cases may not significantly progress during the patient's lifetime, can cause morbidity (e.g. impotence, urinary incontinence) leading to diminished quality of life.

Digital rectal examination (DRE)

Your doctor places a gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate. Most prostate cancers develop in the part of the prostate that lies closest to the rectum. This makes it easy to feel for lumps, irregularities or changes in size or consistency.

A normal prostate feels smooth and rubbery. If your doctor detects abnormalities with a DRE, you may need more tests.

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test

The PSA test is a blood test to help detect prostate cancer. It measures a substance called “prostate-specific antigen” made by the prostate. It's normal to find small quantities of PSA in the blood, but problems with your prostate can cause your PSA level to rise.

PSA levels vary according to age and tend to rise gradually in men over 60. Elevated levels of PSA can be caused by several prostate problems and may not necessarily be cancer. Sometimes men with prostate cancer still have normal PSA levels. If you have an enlarged prostate, your PSA level may also be high.

During a digital rectal exam (DRE), your doctor may have felt something unusual with your prostate and ordered a PSA test. Or the blood test may be part of a checkup and your doctor has suggested more tests because your PSA level is high.

If your DRE or PSA tests suggest abnormalities in your prostate, your doctor may suggest more tests to rule out or confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

Additional resources

Prepared by the Canadian Cancer Society. This information appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.

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