How do I find out if I have prostate cancer?

Aside from both being unique to men, testicular and prostate cancer are quite different. Whereas only around 1 in 263 men will get testicular cancer in their lifetime, around 1 in 8 men will get prostate cancer. The average age to be diagnosed with testicular cancer is 33, whereas the average age to be diagnosed with prostate cancer is currently around 66.

Due to their obvious physical presence, cancer of the testicles is more widely recognized than prostate cancer. This also means that it is possible for men to examine themselves for signs of testicular cancer to enable early detection. The prostate, however, is situated deeper inside the male body, and cannot be easily examined. Therefore, if a man is concerned he may be displaying signs of having prostate cancer, it is important they visit their doctor.

Generally, there is a three stage process taken by doctors to test for prostate cancer. Depending on the situation, a doctor may use any 1, 2 or all 3 of the following steps in the diagnosis process.

  1. DRE
    Initially a doctor may perform a digital rectal exam (or DRE). This is where they will insert a finger inside the rectum in order to feel the prostate gland. Hardening and/or knobbly areas can be an indication of prostate cancer.
  2. PSA test
    If the DRE raises concerns, they could then advise a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test. There are a number of different types of PSA test, but essentially they can be used to decide whether it is necessary to go on to have biopsy. PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland. All men have a small amount of PSA in their blood, and this will increase with age. In some cases, a raised level of PSA can indicate the presence of prostate cancer.
  3. Biopsy
    Your GP will assess your risk of having prostate cancer based on a number of factors, including your PSA levels, the results of your DRE, your age, family history and ethnic group. If it is suspected that cancer may be present, you will be referred for further tests, usually at a hospital. The next stage is then likely to be a biopsy of the prostate. This is when a sample of cells is taken from the prostate to be looked at under a microscope. This is done using a probe which is inserted into the back passage whilst you are asleep (anaesthetised) to take a scan of the prostate (trans-rectal ultrasound) and the samples.

The samples of tissue from the biopsy are studied in a laboratory. If cancerous cells are found, they can be further analysed to see how quickly the cancer is likely to spread. This process is known as “staging and grading” and helps doctors to decide which treatment is the most appropriate.

Once caught, prostate cancer is usually treatable and although it can be a serious disease, most men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die from it. Early detection is important as finding prostate cancer when it is still at an early stage offers the best hope for living cancer free for a long time.

In the UK there is not currently an automatic screening process in place so it is important that if a man is concerned that he may have any symptoms of prostate cancer, he should visit his GP.