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Understanding Prostate Cancer

The Prostate

What exactly is the prostate and where is it?

The prostate is part of a man’s reproductive system. It is located in front of the rectum and under the bladder. It surrounds the urethra, the tube through which urine flows. A healthy prostate is about the size of a walnut.

The prostate makes part of seminal fluid. During ejaculation, seminal fluid helps carry sperm out of the man’s body as part of semen.

Male hormones (androgens) make the prostate grow. The testicles are the main source of male hormones, including testosterone. The adrenal gland also makes testosterone, but in small amounts.

If the prostate grows too large, it squeezes the urethra. This may slow or stop the flow of urine from the bladder to the penis.

Understanding Cancer

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body.

Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Tumors can be benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors are not cancer:
    • Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening.
    • Generally, benign tumors can be removed. They usually do not grow back.
    • Cells from benign tumors do not invade the tissues around them.
    • Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.

Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is the abnormal growth of benign prostate cells. The prostate grows larger and squeezes the urethra. This prevents the normal flow of urine.

BPH is a very common problem. In the United States, most men over the age of 50 have symptoms of BPH. For some men, symptoms may be severe enough to need treatment.

  • Malignant tumors are cancer:
    • Malignant tumors are generally more serious than benign tumors. They may be life-threatening.
    • Malignant tumors often can be removed. But sometimes they grow back.
    • Cells from malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
    • Cells from malignant tumors can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Cancer cells spread by breaking away from the original (primary) tumor and entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system. The cells invade other organs and form new tumors that damage these organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

When prostate cancer spreads, cancer is often found in nearby lymph nodes. If cancer has reached these nodes, it also may have spread to other lymph nodes, the bones, or other organs.

When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if prostate cancer spreads to bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually prostate cancer cells. The disease is metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it is treated as prostate cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor “distant” or metastatic disease.

Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors
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