What is prostate cancer? symptoms, causes & prevention

Approximately 46,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in the UK. It's the most common form of cancer for men and is usually undetectable during the early stages. Symptoms only start to appear as the cancer advances, so it is important be aware of the symptoms of prostate cancer and know when to speak to your GP (especially for men aged 50 and over). Although we don't know the causes of prostate cancer, we know that certain factors significantly increase the risk of developing it. This guide will give you a thorough breakdown of the symptoms of prostate cancer, how to prevent it and which treatments are available.

What is prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is a cancer that develops in the male reproductive system. It affects the prostate — a small gland that helps make sperm. Most forms of prostate cancer start in the outer gland cells and develop slowly over several years. This is known as ‘non-aggressive’ prostate cancer. It’s slow-growing and has a low chance of spreading to other organs and tissue. Prostate cancer can also be classed as ‘aggressive’, which means it’s more likely to spread quickly and move from the prostate into the rest of the body.

There are 3 main stages of prostate cancer:

  1. Localised: the cancer is only growing in the prostate
  2. Locally advanced: the cancer has started to spread into the area around the prostate
  3. Advanced: the cancer has spread into other areas of the body.

Prostate cancer is usually undetectable in the early stages, and many men have it for years before experiencing symptoms. In these early years, prostate cancer can only be detected through routine blood tests and health checks. It affects approximately 48,500 men in the UK every year, and the number is growing.

What are the symptoms of prostate cancer?

The signs of prostate cancer might not be visible for many years. When they emerge, the symptoms will most likely affect your bladder. This is because the prostate sits between the bladder and the penis — when the gland becomes enlarged, it presses against these areas and causes lower urinary symptoms.

The most common prostate cancer symptoms are:

  • Straining when you urinate
  • A weak urine flow
  • Increased need to urinate
  • Dribbling urine when you’ve finished
  • A persistent feeling of bladder fullness

If left unchecked, prostate cancer could cause further health complications and may spread to other areas of the body. If this happens, you could experience the following symptoms:

  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Incontinence
  • Weight loss
  • Metastases (cancer spreading to other organs)
  • Back pain or pelvic pain
  • Blood in the semen or urine

Often, the symptoms are so subtle that many men will live with prostate cancer for decades before discovering they have it. This is especially true for those who don’t have regular blood tests or health checks.

What are the causes of prostate cancer?

There’s no clear link between prostate cancer and preventable causes. Many of the most common risk factors are things outside your control, like genetics and age.

There are 4 main risk factors for prostate cancer:

  1. Age: prostate cancer is most common in men aged 50 and over.
  2. Genetics: you’re more at risk if you have a family history of prostate cancer.
  3. Black ethnicity: 1 in 4 black men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime.
  4. Obesity: there are links between aggressive and advanced prostate cancers and obesity.

There may also be a higher risk for tall men, men who have had a vasectomy, and men with prostatitis (an inflamed prostate). None of these additional factors has enough scientific evidence to back them.

How to prevent and treat prostate cancer

There aren’t many preventable causes for prostate cancer, but a healthy diet and lifestyle can help reduce your cancer risk overall.

Prevention: exercise

Obesity is considered a risk factor for prostate cancer. You can improve your chances of staying healthy by exercising more and keeping your weight within a healthy region. Try to engage in physical activity at least once a day and limit time spent sitting down. You can check whether your current weight is healthy using the NHS BMI calculator.

Prevention: diet

Another great step towards prostate cancer prevention is to eat a healthy diet. Eat less processed foods and integrate more whole foods, fruits and vegetables into your diet. You can also improve your chances of staying healthy if you cut back on red meat, dairy and alcohol.

Some foods are known to reduce cancer risk:

  • Beans and pulses
  • Tomatoes
  • Green tea
  • Cruciferous vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli etc.)

Regular testing is the best way to catch prostate cancer before it has the chance to spread or become aggressive. Find out more here.

Treatment: local

When determining how to stop prostate cancer, your medical professional can give you several options. For many men, treatment isn’t always needed right away. If you don’t have symptoms and your cancer is classed as ‘local’, your doctor might put you on ‘active surveillance’ and monitor your symptoms.

Treatment: locally advanced

If the cancer is ‘locally advanced’, it can be treated with radiotherapy (shrinking the tumour with targeted radiation) or by having your prostate surgically removed. These treatments can cause unpleasant side effects like erectile dysfunction and urinary problems. Because of this, some men choose to delay treatment until the cancer shows signs of worsening.

Treatment: advanced

Advanced stage prostate cancer can’t be treated but can be controlled with hormone therapy and chemotherapy. These treatments can help lessen symptoms and can prolong your lifespan.

How can I check myself for prostate cancer?

There’s no easy way to perform a prostate cancer check at home. The best way to detect it is to use a PSA home testing kit that measures the levels of prostate-specific antigen in your blood. Find out more here. You can also see your GP for a digital rectal exam (DRE) or an MRI scan.

Does prostate cancer make you feel ill?

The early stages of prostate cancer may not make you feel unwell. Symptoms are so subtle that you might have them for years without knowing. However, the symptoms of advanced prostate cancer are more noticeable and can include fatigue, loss of weight, stiffness in the lower back, thighs or hips, and back pain.

Can prostate cancer kill you?

Prostate cancer can be fatal once it has spread beyond the prostate and into the rest of the body. Fortunately, the prostate cancer survival rate has tripled in the last 40 years. Around 78% of men survive for 10 years or more after receiving a diagnosis.

How can I improve my prostate health?

The best way to improve prostate cancer health is to improve your health overall. Experts agree that, although there’s no definitive cause, the risk of developing prostate cancer is lower if you have a healthy, balanced diet and get plenty of exercise.

Now that you’ve learned how to spot the symptoms of prostate cancer, you can maintain a close watch on your health and catch it before it’s too late. The causes of prostate cancer aren’t factors within your control, so we’d recommend regular PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) checks and health screenings for men aged 40 and over.

Bluecrest Wellness offers a Male Cancer Risk package for men aged over 40, which covers 37 blood readings and 2 sample tests, including Prostate Cancer Risk. Find out more here. Learn more about making healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle with guidance from our experts.