Prostate cancer occurs when some of the cells of the prostate reproduce far more rapidly than in a normal prostate, causing a swelling or tumour. However, unlike BPH, prostate cancer cells eventually break out of the prostate and invade distant parts of the body, particularly the bones and lymph nodes, producing secondary tumours, a process known as metastasis. Once the cancer escapes from the prostate, treatment is possible but “cure” becomes impossible.
Prostate cancer is usually one of the slower growing cancers. In the past, it was most frequently encountered in men over 70, and many of those men died of other causes before their prostate cancer could kill them. This led to the old saying “most men die with, not of, prostate cancer”. However, that is certainly is not true today. Three developments have changed things considerably:
- Men are living longer, giving the cancer more time to spread beyond the prostate, with potentially fatal consequences.
- More men in their early sixties, fifties and even forties are being detected with prostate cancer. Earlier on-set, combined with the greater male life expectancy, means those cancers have more time to spread and become life-threatening unless diagnosed and treated.
- Prostate cancer in younger men often tends to be more aggressive and hence more life-threatening within a shorter time.
Provided appropriate treatment commences while the cancer is still confined to the prostate gland, it is possible to "cure" it. The possibility of cure is the main reason why early diagnosis is critical.
Most cases of early prostate cancer have no symptoms. Therefore men over the age of 40 who are concerned about prostate cancer, especially those with a family history of prostate cancer are advised to see their doctor about testing for prostate cancer. Testing involves a blood test called prostate specific antigen (PSA) or prostate health index (PHI) and a digital rectal examination (DRE). In some case a prostate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be necessary if the PSA, PHI or DRE are abnormal.
Compared with other cancers, prostate cancer has one of the highest survival rates after diagnosis and treatment.