Urology Center of Englewood

Prostate Cancer Screening & Prevention

Overview

The prostate is a male sex gland that is located between the bladder and the rectum. Prostate cancer occurs commonly in older men and is the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. Prostate cancer is typically a disease of aging. It may persist undetected for many years without causing symptoms. In fact, most men die with prostate cancer not from prostate cancer. Approximately 20% of men will develop prostate cancer during their lifetime, yet only 3% will actually die of the disease.

The chance of an individual developing cancer depends on both genetic and non-genetic factors. A genetic factor is an inherited, unchangeable trait, while a non-genetic factor is a variable in a person’s environment, which can often be changed. Non-genetic factors may include diet, exercise, or exposure to other substances present in our surroundings. These non-genetic factors are often referred to as environmental factors. Some non-genetic factors play a role in facilitating the process of healthy cells turning cancerous (e.g. the correlation between smoking and lung cancer), while other cancers have no known environmental correlation but are known to have a genetic predisposition. A genetic predisposition means that a person may be at higher risk for a certain cancer if a family member has that type of cancer.

Heredity or Genetic Factors

Researchers have estimated that approximately 9% of prostate cancers may be the result of heritable susceptibility genes. Approximately 15% of men with prostate cancer have a first-degree male relative (father or brother) with prostate cancer, compared with 8% of the general population. Identification of specific genes involved in hereditary prostate cancer has proved challenging, but research in this area continues. Mutations in the BRCA2 gene—which have been linked with breast and ovarian cancer in women—appear to increase the risk of prostate cancer in men.[1]

Environmental or Non-Genetic Factors

Researchers are unsure why one man will develop prostate cancer and another will not. Interestingly, when people from areas with low prostate cancer rates move to areas with higher prostate cancer rates, they assume the rates of their new environment, although their genetic make-up clearly has not changed. This suggests that environmental factors may play a larger role than genetic factors in the development of prostate cancer. Although the causes of prostate cancer remain ambiguous, researchers have identified several risk factors that are associated with prostate cancer.

Age: The incidence of prostate cancer increases dramatically with increasing age. It is unusual for prostate cancer to occur in men under the age of 50. Prostate cancer is most common in men over the age of 55, with the median age at diagnosis being 68.[2] Over the course of a lifetime, one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Race: Prostate cancer rates are highest among blacks, intermediate among whites, and lowest among Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Black men are more than 50% more likely to develop prostate cancer as white men and are twice as likely to die from the disease.

Diet: Studies have generally not found strong links between specific dietary practices and risk of prostate cancer. Although some early studies reported that vitamin E and selenium may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, a more definitive clinical trial found no benefit from selenium and a possible increase in prostate cancer risk with vitamin E supplements.[3] Although caution is clearly warranted when it comes to dietary supplements, eating a diet rich in healthy foods can reduce your risk of certain types of cancer and other common health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. A healthy diet is one that is rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains and that allows you to maintain a healthy body weight. In addition, for the purposes of cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting intake of red meat and alcohol.[4]

Prevention

Many questions remain about the causes and prevention of prostate cancer, and researchers continue to evaluate medications, dietary factors, and behaviors that may reduce risk.

5-alpha-reductase inhibitors: The 5-alpha-reductase enzymes convert testosterone to another hormone known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is the most potent male hormone in the prostate. Drugs that inhibit 5-alpha-reductase are used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, and may also reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men at high risk of the disease.[5] [6] These drugs include finasteride and dutasteride.

Screening and Early Detection

For many types of cancer, progress in the areas of cancer screening and treatment has offered promise for earlier detection and higher cure rates. The term screening refers to the regular use of certain examinations or tests in persons who do not have any symptoms of a cancer but are at high risk for that cancer. When individuals are at high risk for a type of cancer, this means that they have certain characteristics or exposures, called risk factors that make them more likely to develop that type of cancer than those who do not have these risk factors. The risk factors are different for different types of cancer. An awareness of these risk factors is important because 1) some risk factors can be changed (such as smoking or dietary intake), thus decreasing the risk for developing the associated cancer; and 2) persons who are at high risk for developing a cancer can often undergo regular screening measures that are recommended for that cancer type. Researchers continue to study which characteristics or exposures are associated with an increased risk for various cancers, allowing for the use of more effective prevention, early detection, and treatment strategies.

Screening for prostate cancer is a complicated and controversial topic. Using currently available tests such as the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, the benefits of screening appear to be modest and are accompanied by some risks. One of the risks of prostate cancer screening is overdiagnosis (the diagnosis of a slow-growing cancer that will not cause problems during the man’s lifetime). Overdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary cancer treatment.

The balance of risks and benefits remains somewhat uncertain. One group—the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)—has concluded that the benefits of PSA-based screening are unlikely to outweigh the risks; as a result, the USPSTF recommends against PSA-based screening for prostate cancer.[7] The American Cancer Society takes a somewhat different approach by recommending that men discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening with their physician starting at age 50 (or earlier if the man is at high risk of prostate cancer as a result of race or family history).[8] As with many medical services, different people may make different choices. The key is to make an informed decision.

For men who choose to be screened, screening tests may include the following:

PSA Blood Test: A simple blood test allows laboratory technicians to determine PSA levels. Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein that is normally secreted and disposed of by the prostate gland. High PSA levels may indicate the presence of prostate cancer cells or other noncancerous prostate conditions.

Digital Rectal Exam (DRE): During a digital rectal exam (DRE), a physician inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to assess the texture and size of the prostate.

Transrectal Ultrasonography: During transrectal ultrasonography, a small probe is inserted into the rectum. The probe emits high frequency sound waves that bounce off of the prostate and produce echoes. A computer uses these echoes to create a picture called a sonogram that can show abnormal areas.

Strategies to Improve Screening and Prevention

In an effort to provide better screening options and perhaps more effective prevention strategies, researchers continue to explore new techniques for the screening and early detection of cancer. An important focus of research involves how to identify the subset of prostate cancers that are life-threatening. If these cancers can be distinguished from more indolent (slow-growing) prostate cancers, it may be possible to reserve treatment (and the side effects that accompany it) for men who truly need it.

References:

 


[1] Foulkes WD. Inherited susceptibility to common cancers. New England Journal of Medicine. 2008;359:2143-53.

[2] Horner MJ, Ries LAG, Krapcho M, Neyman N, Aminou R, Howlader N, Altekruse SF, Feuer EJ, Huang L, Mariotto A, Miller BA, Lewis DR, Eisner MP, Stinchcomb DG, Edwards BK (eds). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2006, National Cancer Institute.Bethesda,MD, http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2006/, based on November 2008 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER web site, 2009.

[3] EA Klein, IM Thompson, CM Tangen, JJ Crowley, MS Lucia, PJ Goodman, L Minasian, LG Ford, HL Parnes, JM Gaziano, DD Karp, MM Lieber, PJ Walther, L Klotz, JK Parsons, JL Chin, A Darke, SM Lippman, GE Goodman, FL Meyskens, and LH Baker. Vitamin E and the Risk of Prostate Cancer: Results of The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA. October 12, 2011. 306(14) 1549-1556.

[4] Doyle C, Kushi LH, Byers T et al. Nutrition and physical activity during and after cancer treatment: an American Cancer Society Guide for informed choices. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2006;56:323-353.

[5] Andriole G, Bostwick DG, Brawley OW et al. Effect of dutasteride on the risk of prostate cancer. New England Journal of Medicine. 2010;362:1192-202.

[6] Thompson IM, Goodman PJ, Tangen CM et al. The influence of finasteride on the development of prostate cancer. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003;349:215-24.

[7] Moyer VA, U.S. Preventive Services Tasks Force. Screening for Prostate Cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Tasks Force Recommendation Statement. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012; Early online publication May 21, 2012.

[8] American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. Last revised March, 2012.