Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men. In fact, Prostate Cancer UK tells us that one in eight men will get the disease during their lifetime – with an average of 52,000 being diagnosed with it every year.

However, the more positive news is that prostate cancer survival in the UK has tripled in the last 40 years, and the earlier the disease is caught, the more successful treatment is likely to be.

Below, we’ll take a closer look at what the prostate is, who’s most at risk of developing prostate cancer, and what warning signs to look out for.

What is the prostate?

What is the prostate

The prostate is a small, walnut-sized gland that’s part of the male reproductive system.

It surrounds the urethra – the tube that takes urine from the bladder, through the penis, and allows it to leave the body.

The prostate’s main purpose is to produce a fluid that mixes with the sperm from the testicles to make semen.

What are the risk factors for prostate cancer?

What are the risk factors for prostate cancer

While the exact causes of prostate cancer are mostly unknown, there are a few factors that are thought to put you at a greater risk of developing it….

1. Age

Age is a significant risk factor for prostate cancer. Research tells us that a person’s likelihood of developing the disease begins to increase around age 49 and continues to increase until age 79 – with the highest number of cases being diagnosed in the 75-79 age group.

2. Ethnicity

Ethnicity is considered to be another risk factor for prostate cancer. Experts advise that black individuals are at a higher risk (recent research indicates that this could be as much as 64% more likely than Caucasian people) and those with Asian ethnicities are less likely to develop the disease. The reasons for this are not yet known.

3. A family history of prostate cancer

If you have a family risk of prostate cancer, you may be at a higher risk of developing the disease. According to Prostate Cancer UK, your likelihood is two and a half times more if you have a first-degree relative (father or brother) who suffered from it.

Research also tells us that this likelihood may be increased further if your father or brother was diagnosed before the age of 55, and/or if you have a mother or sister who suffered from breast or ovarian cancer.

4. Obesity

Although there isn’t yet a clear link between obesity and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer, research suggests that for every five-point increase in body mass index (BMI), the risk of dying from prostate cancer rises by 10%.

For this reason (and many others), it’s important to make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of physical exercise.

What are the warning signs of prostate cancer?

What are the warning signs of prostate cancer

You may have noticed that the three main factors for developing prostate cancer (age, ethnicity, and family history) are beyond our control. And if you have an increased risk, this can naturally create some feelings of anxiety.

But it’s worth remembering that treatments for prostate cancer are improving, as are survival rates. Some cases of prostate cancer are also considered to be ‘low risk’, which means they grow slowly or not at all. Cancers like these can be actively monitored, without the need for treatment at that time, if at all, depending on how much they progress.

And even with faster-growing cancers, the earlier they’re caught the better – and the more effective your treatment is likely to be. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of key signs and symptoms to look out for, so you can make an appointment with your doctor if you have any concerns.

We’ve pulled together some of the most common ones below…

Early warning signs of prostate cancer

Unfortunately, one of the most difficult aspects of diagnosing prostate cancer is that it often presents no early symptoms. This is especially true if the cancer grows on the outer part of the gland, where it doesn’t press on the urethra.

However, if it does grow close to the urethra, the cancer may begin to put pressure on the tube and affect the way we urinate. So the first things to watch out for are changes in your urination habits and behaviours.

This can include…

  • Needing to urinate more often (especially at night)

  • Having to rush to the toilet very suddenly

  • Feeling that you haven’t emptied your bladder fully

  • Having a weak flow of urine (even when the urge to urinate is strong)

  • Straining to urinate or taking longer than usual

  • Finding it difficult to start urinating, even when you feel desperate

  • Blood in urine or semen

It’s important to keep in mind that experiencing these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you have prostate cancer.

In fact, our prostates naturally get bigger with age, which can cause some of these issues. This is because of a condition called benign prostate enlargement, which is not usually a threat to our health. Some of these symptoms may also indicate other, non-cancerous conditions like prostatitis.

You can find out more about benign prostate enlargement and prostatitis in our article; Prostate health over 50 – signs and symptoms to look out for.

Some later symptoms…

While prostate cancer in its early stages may not have any symptoms – or just those involving urination and semen production – when it spreads beyond the prostate, it can cause other symptoms.

Some of these include…

  • Bone and back pain

  • Pain in the testicles

  • A loss of appetite

  • Unintentional or unexplained weight loss

  • Difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms in this section or the previous one, it’s best to go and see your GP, so that they can determine the cause and offer you any treatment that you may need.

How is prostate cancer diagnosed?

How is prostate cancer diagnosed

If your doctor suspects that your symptoms could be an indicator of prostate cancer, they might arrange a physical examination of your prostate gland (digital rectal exam) and/or a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test.

A digital rectal examination involves a doctor or nurse feeling your prostate through the wall of your rectum in order to determine whether or not there are some physical abnormalities.

A PSA blood test, on the other hand, measures how much prostate-specific antigen (PSA) you have in your body. PSA is a protein that’s made by prostate cells, and a high level may indicate the presence of cancer.

This might make you wonder why PSA tests aren’t used to test people for prostate cancer routinely. And the simple answer is that, though PSA tests can help to signal a cancer presence – they aren’t always reliable.

This is because a high PSA level can be a sign of other, non-cancerous conditions too – and these false-positive results can lead to unnecessary worry and further invasive treatment. Plus, prostate cancer can still be present without raising a person’s PSA level, which can lead to false negatives.

While there isn’t a prostate screening programme available in the UK, if you’re over 50, you have the right to request a PSA test – regardless of whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms. Just be sure to think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of having one beforehand. This article from the NHS should walk you through everything you need to know.

After physical examinations and PSA tests, your doctor might recommend further assessments, including an MRI scan followed by a targeted biopsy. You can find out more about these and other prostate cancer tests on the NHS website.

Final thoughts…

Thinking about cancer can be daunting, especially if you’re at a higher risk. But having more understanding and awareness of the disease, and knowing what steps to take if you think you might be affected, can make early detection more likely, and the resulting treatment more effective.

For more information on common conditions and what we can do to keep ourselves in good shape, head on over to the health section of our website. Here, you’ll find articles on subjects ranging from keeping your cholesterol levels low to how to spot the signs of bowel cancer.