What is Prostate Cancer?

Cells are the building blocks that we are made from. These usually grow in a regulated and controlled way to form tissue. Over time old cells will die and be replaced by new cells (through a process of cell division) to carry on their specific role for the rest of the body. If these new cells do not receive the correct messages as to what they should do, they can start to grow faster than normal and in an  uncontrolled way and swell to become growths or tumours.

We know that the male sex hormone, testosterone, plays a vital role in promoting the growth of both normal and abnormal prostate cells. Without testosterone (even at normal levels in the male body), growth of prostate cancer can be slowed and this factor is used in some treatments of the disease.

Some tumours can be non-cancerous (benign) ie Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH)  These non-cancerous cells tend to stick together where they have grown.

On the other hand, tumours can be cancerous (malignant) and when this happens in the prostate it is called prostate cancer.  Most prostate cancers grow slowly.  At the moment, it’s not known why some prostate cancers grow more slowly and others grow more quickly. Prostate cancer may be:

  • Early or localised where it is still inside the prostate and has not spread to other parts of the body; Click here for further information
  • Locally advanced where it has spread just outside through the prostate capsule (covering) or into the seminal vesicles that lie just behind the prostate- click here for further information
  • Advanced where the cancer cells have spread away from the prostate through the bloodstream or lymph channels. On reaching a new site(s) the cancer cells may start to grow causing another growth or tumour. These are called secondary cancers (secondaries) or metastases – click here for further information

How common is prostate cancer?
Prostate cancer can affect 1 in 10 men in Scotland and is the most common cancer amongst men in Scotland. Whilst the number of people diagnosed with prostate cancer in Scotland is increasing, so have survival rates, especially when symptoms have been recognised, an early diagnosis made and treatment started. Worryingly though, not all men will have any symptoms in the early stages. Some men may have this condition in later years without it leading to any problems.  

What are the risk factors of developing prostate cancer?
As men get older, the risk of developing prostate cancer increases. Before 40, it’s very uncommon, but by the age of 80, 80% of men will have some cancerous cells in their prostate, although most of these men will never need treatment and some will never know anything about it.  Family history also has a role to play; if a father, grandfather or brother has or had prostate cancer then the risk is greater. Men from an African/Caribbean background are 3 times more at risk of getting prostate cancer than other ethnic groups. For more information about risk factors see the leaflet – Prostate Cancer – Is it in the family?

Is there a screening programme for prostate cancer?
 At the present time there is not a screening programme for prostate cancer in the UK. Instead there is a Prostate Cancer Risk Management Pack for GPs.  The guidance in this pack states that: Any man over the age of 50 who asks for a PSA test after careful consideration of the implications should be given one.

Although the PSA test is the best test available at the moment, it does not in itself diagnose prostate cancer and is best used as a guide to something going wrong with the prostate, alongside other tests and examinations.

Your GP may feel that in certain circumstances and for a small number of men having a PSA test may not be the best thing but he/she should explain why that is. If you are still concerned and would like to have a PSA test then you can always ask to speak with another GP or health care professional.

For more information on the PSA blood test, please see the leaflet  The PSA test – get the knowledge  – an introduction to PSA for those coming new to the topic.

Also available is the booklet PSA Explained which gives a more in depth explanation of PSA.

For even more information on prostate cancer, please see our booklets:

Early prostate cancer explained
Introduction to advanced prostate cancer
Advanced prostate cancer explained

What the medical words mean, abbreviations that you might hear and medical staff that you might meet.

When you have been diagnosed with any disease or condition, unavoidably, there will medical words and abbreviations that doctors, nurses and other medical staff will use that you have never heard of and will perhaps not know what they mean and prostate disease and prostate cancer are no different.

A helpful list of medical words you might come across is provided here in alphabetical order.