Prostate cancer is the most common form of male cancer and the fourth cause of cancer deaths in the UK. Current evidence suggests there is little a man can do to reduce his risk. But there are ways to improve your chances of survival — most notably, by catching the cancer early.
Know the symptoms
Ninety per cent of men who are diagnosed at the very early stages live at least five more years. This drops to just 30 per cent if the cancer has reached stage four and has started to spread to other parts of the body.
Unfortunately, according to Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK’s head cancer information nurse, ‘very early prostate cancer doesn’t generally cause any symptoms at all’. He says: ‘If a tumour isn’t large enough to put much pressure on the tube that carries urine out of the body — the urethra — you may not notice any effects from it.’
Symptoms of growths in the prostate are similar whether they are non-cancerous or cancerous, he explains. ‘These can include having to rush to the toilet to pass urine; passing urine more often than usual, especially at night; or difficulty passing urine, including straining to pass it or stopping and starting.’
Ledwick says those with symptoms should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. ‘Although most enlargements of the prostate aren’t cancer and can be easily treated, if it is cancer the earlier it’s picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is successful,’ he says.
Know your risk
A man’s lifetime risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer is one in eight in the UK. There is no conclusive evidence that men can do anything to lower their risk.
The biggest risk factor is age — your risk increases the older you get. Then there is family history. A man is twice as likely to develop prostate cancer if his father had the disease and three times as likely if his brother had it. Having a grandfather, uncle or nephew with prostate cancer increases your chances to just under twice that of a man with no family history.
There are links to other cancers. A Swedish study found that if a man’s mother has had breast or ovarian cancer his risk of developing prostate cancer also increased.
A man’s risk also seems to depend on his ethnicity. A study by Public Health England looking at hospital data reported that men classified as ‘black Caribbean’, ‘black African’ and ‘other black’ had twice the risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer as white men. Asian men had the lowest lifetime risk of developing the disease.
If you are high risk or have had symptoms it is worth speaking to your GP about a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test.
Unlike in other countries, in Britain there is no national screening programme for prostate cancer. Such a programme is thought to do more harm than good. That is because it picks up low-risk, slow-growing prostate cancers (along with the deadlier, high-risk ones) that are unlikely to cause any problems. Men may then undergo treatment and tests unnecessarily.
Research is now focusing on whether risk factors like age, ethnic background, family history and other genetic risk factors can be combined with tests like PSA to improve screening methods and detect aggressive prostate cancer with greater accuracy.
Dr Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England, says: ‘There needs to be a better understanding about benign (not harmful in effect) and aggressive forms of the cancer.’