About prostate cancer
Prostate cancer begins when abnormal cells in the prostate start growing in an uncontrolled way.
Learn more about:
- The prostate
- How common is prostate cancer?
- What causes prostate cancer?
- Is family history important?
- Screening tests
The prostate is a small gland about the size of a walnut. It forms part of the male reproductive system. The prostate sits below the bladder and in front of the rectum (the end section of the large bowel). A pair of glands called the seminal vesicles attach to the back of the prostate. The prostate is close to nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that help control erections and urination (the pelvic floor muscles and urinary sphincter).
What the prostate does
The prostate produces fluid that helps to feed and protect sperm. This fluid forms part of semen. Semen also contains sperm made in the testicles (testes) and fluid made by the seminal vesicles.
Urethra – This is a thin tube that runs from the bladder and through the prostate to take urine (wee or pee) out of the body. The urethra also carries semen during orgasm.
Ejaculation – When an orgasm occurs, millions of sperm from the testicles move through two tubes near the prostate called the vas deferens. The sperm then join with the fluids produced by the prostate and seminal vesicles to make semen. The muscle around the prostate contracts and pushes the semen into the urethra and out through the penis.
How the prostate grows
The male sex hormone, testosterone, is made by the testicles and controls how the prostate grows. It is normal for the prostate to become larger with age. This may lead to a condition known as benign prostate hyperplasia. Sometimes an enlarged prostate can cause problems, especially when passing urine.
How common is it?
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in Australian men (apart from common skin cancers). There are about 18,100 new cases in Australia every year. About 1 in 10 men will get prostate cancer before the age of 75.
Anyone with a prostate can get prostate cancer – men, transgender women and intersex people. For information specific to your situation, speak to your doctor.
Non-cancerous changes to the prostate
A normal prostate often grows larger as you age – this is not usually due to cancer. This growth of the prostate is called benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH).
BPH may press on the urethra and affect how you urinate. You may have:
- a weak stream of urine
- to go to the toilet more often, especially at night
- to go urgently
- trouble getting started
- dribbling of urine after going
- a feeling that the bladder is not empty.
These are known as lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) and they can also occur in advanced prostate cancer. If you have LUTS, speak to your doctor.
What causes prostate cancer?
The exact cause of prostate cancer is not known. Things that can increase the risk of developing prostate cancer include:
- older age – over 90% of people diagnosed with prostate cancer are aged 55 and over
- family history of prostate cancer – if your father or brother has had prostate cancer before the age of 60, your risk will be at least twice that of others
- strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer – particularly cancer caused by a fault in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
- race – people of African-American descent have a higher risk.
While prostate cancer is less common if you are under 55, people aged 40–55 may have a higher than average risk of developing prostate cancer later in life if their prostate specific antigen (PSA) test results are higher than the typical range for their age.
Is family history important?
Having a strong family history of cancer may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer. You may have inherited a gene that increases your risk of prostate cancer if you have:
- several close relatives on the same side of the family (either your mother’s or father’s side) diagnosed with prostate, breast and/or ovarian cancer
- a brother or father diagnosed with prostate cancer before the age of 60.
If you are concerned about your family history, talk to your GP. They may refer you to a family cancer clinic or genetic counselling service. For more information, see Genetics and cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
For an overview of what to expect at every stage of your cancer care, visit Guides to Best Cancer Care – Prostate cancer. This is a short guide to what is recommended, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.
Cancer screening is testing to look for cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. The benefit of screening is that the cancer can be found and treated early. However, it is important that the benefits of screening outweigh any potential harms from treatment side effects.
There is currently no national screening program for prostate cancer. The PSA test may identify fast-growing cancers that can spread to other parts of the body and would benefit from treatment. It may also find slow-growing cancers that are unlikely to be harmful.
Some people without any symptoms of prostate cancer do choose to have regular PSA tests. Before having a PSA test, it is important to talk to your GP about the benefits and risks in your particular circumstances.
If you choose to have regular PSA tests, the current guidelines recommend that:
- men with no family history of prostate cancer have PSA testing every two years from the ages of 50–69
- men with a family history of prostate cancer have PSA testing every two years starting from age 40–45, depending on how strong the family history is. For more information, visit Do you need the test and see Prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test.
A/Prof Ian Vela, Urologic Oncologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Queensland University of Technology, and Urology, QLD; A/Prof Arun Azad, Medical Oncologist, Urological Cancers, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Nicholas Brook, Consultant Urological Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital and A/Prof Surgery, The University of Adelaide, SA; Peter Greaves, Consumer; Graham Henry, Consumer; Clin Prof Nat Lenzo, Nuclear Physician and Specialist in Internal Medicine, Group Clinical Director, GenesisCare Theranostics, and Notre Dame University Australia, WA; Henry McGregor, Men’s Health Physiotherapist, Adelaide Men’s Health Physio, SA; Jessica Medd, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Department of Urology, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, NSW; Dr Tom Shakespeare, Director, Radiation Oncology, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Lismore Public Hospitals, NSW; A/Prof David Smith, Senior Research Fellow, Daffodil Centre, Cancer Council NSW; Allison Turner, Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurse (PCFA), Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Maria Veale, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council QLD; Michael Walkden, Consumer; Prof Scott Williams, Radiation Oncology Lead, Urology Tumour Stream, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Professor of Oncology, Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology, The University of Melbourne, VIC.
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