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Understanding Prostate Cancer -- the Basics

What Is Prostate Cancer?

The prostate is a gland in the male reproductive system. It makes most of the semen that carries sperm. The walnut-sized gland is located beneath the bladder and surrounds the upper part of the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder.

Prostate cancer is a major health concern for American men. The disease is rare before age 50, and experts believe that most elderly men have traces of it.

In 2014, about 233,000 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S., and about 29,480 will die of it. African-American men are more likely to get prostate cancer and have the highest death rate. In other parts of the world -- notably Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- prostate cancer is rare.

Prostate cancer is usually a very slow growing cancer, often causing no symptoms until it is in an advanced stage. Most men with prostate cancer die of other causes, and many never know that they have the disease. But once prostate cancer begins to grow quickly or spreads outside the prostate, it is dangerous.

Prostate cancer in its early stages (when it’s only found in the prostate gland) can be treated with very good chances for survival. Fortunately, about 85% of American men with prostate cancer are diagnosed in an early stage of the disease.

Cancer that has spread beyond the prostate (such as to the bones, lymph nodes, and lungs) is not curable, but it may be controlled for many years. Because of the many advances in available treatments, most men whose prostate cancer becomes widespread can expect to live five years or more. Some men with advanced prostate cancer live a normal life and die of another cause, such as heart disease.

What Causes Prostate Cancer?

Prostate cancer affects mainly older men. About 80% of cases are in men over 65, and less than 1% of cases are in men under 50. Men with a family history of prostate cancer are more likely to get it.

Doctors don’t know what causes prostate cancer, but diet contributes to the risk. Men who eat lots of fat from red meat are most likely to have prostate cancer. Eating meat may be risky for other reasons: Meat cooked at high temperatures produces cancer-causing substances that affect the prostate. The disease is much more common in countries where meat and dairy products are common than in countries where the diet consists of rice, soybean products, and vegetables.

Hormones also play a role. Eating fats raises the amount of testosterone in the body, and testosterone speeds the growth of prostate cancer.

A few job hazards have been found. Welders, battery manufacturers, rubber workers, and workers frequently exposed to the metal cadmium seem to be more likely to get prostate cancer.

Not exercising also makes prostate cancer more likely.

Drugs that may lower the risk of having prostate cancer include aspirin, finasteride, cholesterol-lowering drugs and triglyceride-lowering drugs, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Adding certain foods in your diet may also help reduce the risk, including tomato sauce and vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on March 31, 2014
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