Prostate cancer has overtaken breast cancer to become the most commonly diagnosed cancer in England, new statistics show.
In 2018, there were nearly 50,000 registered cases of prostate cancer – around 8,000 more than in 2017.
Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS’s national clinical director for cancer, said this is largely down to people living longer, but it could also be because of greater awareness among the public thanks to “well-known figures like Rod Stewart, Stephen Fry and Bill Turnbull all talking openly about their diagnosis”.
Recently published figures suggest the number of men dying from prostate cancer in the UK has hit an all-time high, with 12,031 deaths from the disease in 2017 – the most recent figures available – up from 11,637 the year before.
What is the prostate?
The prostate is a small gland in the pelvis found only in men. About the size of a walnut, it is located between the penis and the bladder. It surrounds the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis.
The main function of the prostate is to help in the production of semen. It produces a thick white fluid that is mixed with the sperm produced by the testicles and is secreted at the time of ejaculation.
Symptoms of prostate cancer
Symptoms of prostate cancer are often largely invisible. In fact, it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms until the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on the urethra.
At this point, men might experience symptoms such as: needing to urinate more frequently, often during the night; needing to rush to the toilet; difficulty urinating; straining or taking a long time to urinate; having a weak flow and feeling that your bladder hasn’t emptied fully.
According to Prostate Cancer UK, if the cancer has spread men might experience bone and back pain, a loss of appetite, pain in the testicles and unexplained weight loss.
If you experience any of the above symptoms, or a member of your family has had prostate cancer, you should visit your GP. There, your doctor should take a urine sample to check for infection, take a blood sample to test your level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and examine your prostate.
PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland. Prostate cancer can increase the production of PSA, so the test looks for raised levels of PSA in the blood that may be a sign of the condition in its early stages.
The prostate examination involves a doctor or nurse inserting a finger into the rectum (back passage) to feel for abnormalities. While it can seem like a daunting prospect, the examination doesn’t hurt and is over in seconds.
Treatment for prostate cancer will depend on how aggressive it is and whether it has spread. The NHS lists the four stages of prostate cancer as:
:: Stage 1 - where the cancer is very small and completely within the prostate gland.
:: Stage 2 - where the cancer is within the prostate gland, but is larger.
:: Stage 3 - the cancer has spread from the prostate and may have grown into the tubes that carry semen.
:: Stage 4 – the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes or another part of the body, including the bladder, rectum or bones.
If the cancer is considered ‘low-risk’ (meaning it is not growing or spreading), men are usually put under active surveillance, where doctors test them regularly to gather extra information and see whether the disease is changing.
If the cancer is confined to the prostate, men might opt to have a radical prostatectomy where the prostate gland is removed completely. It’s worth noting that after surgery, men might experience erectile dysfunction and bladder problems.
Radiotherapy is another option for prostate cancer which is confined to the prostate or that has spread. It involves using radiation to kill cancerous cells. In people with terminal cancer, it can help to slow the progression of the cancer spreading. Temporary side effects can include diarrhoea, loss of pubic hair, tiredness and cystitis. More permanent side effects may include erectile dysfunction and bladder problems.
For more information on prostate cancer treatment, visit the NHS Choices website.