Prostate Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Screening | Additional Resources
Georgetown Lombardi Prostate Cancer Screening Educational Booklet

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Prostate cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the prostate.

The prostate is a gland in the male reproductive system located just below the bladder (the organ that collects and empties urine) and in front of the rectum (the lower part of the intestine). It is about the size of a walnut and surrounds part of the urethra (the tube that empties urine from the bladder). The prostate gland produces fluid that makes up part of the semen.

Anatomy of the  male reproductive and urinary systems; drawing shows front and side views of ureters, lymph nodes, rectum, bladder, prostate gland, vas deferens,  penis, testicles, urethra, seminal vesicle, and ejaculatory duct. Anatomy of the male reproductive and urinary systems, showing the prostate, testicles, bladder, and other organs. (Image: Alan Hoofring (artist), National Cancer Institute)

Prostate cancer is found mainly in older men. As men age, the prostate may get bigger and block the urethra or bladder. This may cause difficulty in urination or can interfere with sexual function. The condition is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and although it is not cancer, surgery may be needed to correct it. The symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia or of other problems in the prostate may be similar to symptoms of prostate cancer.

Two-panel drawing shows normal male reproductive and urinary anatomy and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Panel on the left shows the normal prostate and flow of urine from the bladder through the urethra. Panel on the right shows an enlarged prostate pressing on the bladder and urethra, blocking the flow of urine. Normal prostate and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). A normal prostate does not block the flow of urine from the bladder. An enlarged prostate presses on the bladder and urethra and blocks the flow of urine.

Possible signs of prostate cancer include a weak flow of urine or frequent urination.

These and other symptoms may be caused by prostate cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Weak or interrupted flow of urine.
  • Frequent urination (especially at night).
  • Trouble urinating.
  • Pain or burning during urination.
  • Blood in the urine or semen.
  • A pain in the back, hips, or pelvis that doesn't go away.
  • Painful ejaculation.

Tests that examine the prostate and blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose prostate cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate through the rectal wall for lumps or abnormal areas.
Digital rectal exam; drawing shows a side view of the male reproductive and urinary anatomy, including the prostate, rectum, and bladder; also shows a gloved and lubricated finger inserted into the rectum to feel the prostate. Digital rectal exam (DRE). The doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum and feels the prostate to check for anything abnormal.

  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test: A test that measures the level of PSA in the blood. PSA is a substance made by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer. PSA levels may also be high in men who have an infection or inflammation of the prostate or BPH (an enlarged, but noncancerous, prostate).

  • Transrectal ultrasound: A procedure in which a probe that is about the size of a finger is inserted into the rectum to check the prostate. The probe is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. Transrectal ultrasound may be used during a biopsy procedure.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist will examine the biopsy sample to check for cancer cells and determine the Gleason score. The Gleason score ranges from 2-10 and describes how likely it is that a tumor will spread. The lower the number, the less likely the tumor is to spread. There are 2 types of biopsy procedures used to diagnose prostate cancer.

  • Transrectal biopsy: The removal of tissue from the prostate by inserting a thin needle through the rectum and into the prostate. This procedure is usually done using transrectal ultrasound to help guide the needle. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Transperineal biopsy: The removal of tissue from the prostate by inserting a thin needle through the skin between the scrotum and rectum and into the prostate. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the prostate, involves the whole prostate, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The patient's age and health.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Prognosis also depends on the Gleason score and the level of PSA.

After prostate cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the prostate or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the prostate or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Radionuclide bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

  • Bone scan: A small amount of radioactive material is injected into the patient's bloodstream and collects in abnormal cells in the bones. As the patient lies on a table that slides under the scanner, the radioactive material is detected and images are made on a computer screen or film.

    MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

    Pelvic lymphadenectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the lymph nodes in the pelvis. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

    CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • Seminal vesicle biopsy: The removal of fluid from the seminal vesicles (glands that produce semen) using a needle. A pathologist views the fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

The stage of the cancer is based on the results of the staging and diagnostic tests, including the original tumor biopsy. The biopsy is used to determine the Gleason score. The Gleason score ranges from 2-10 and describes how different the cancer cells look from normal cells and how likely it is that the tumor will spread. The lower the number, the less likely the tumor is to spread.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.

  • Through the lymph system
    . Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.

  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for prostate cancer:

As prostate cancer progresses from Stage I to Stage IV, the cancer cells grow within the prostate, through the outer layer of the prostate into nearby tissue, and then to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer is found in the prostate only. It cannot be felt during a digital rectal exam and is not visible by imaging. It is usually found accidentally during surgery for other reasons, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia. The Gleason score is low. Stage I prostate cancer may also be called stage A1 prostate cancer.

Stage II

In stage II, cancer is more advanced than in stage I, but has not spread outside the prostate. The Gleason score can range from 2-10. Stage II prostate cancer may also be called stage A2, stage B1, or stage B2 prostate cancer.

Stage III

In stage III, cancer has spread beyond the outer layer of the prostate to nearby tissues. Cancer may be found in the seminal vesicles. The Gleason score can range from 2-10. Stage III prostate cancer may also be called stage C prostate cancer.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer has metastasized (spread) to lymph nodes near or far from the prostate or to other parts of the body, such as the bladder, rectum, bones, liver, or lungs. Metastatic prostate cancer often spreads to the bones. The Gleason score can range from 2-10. Stage IV prostate cancer may also be called stage D1 or stage D2 prostate cancer.

Recurrent Prostate Cancer

Recurrent prostate cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the prostate or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service