Many folks are of the opinion that prostate troubles are just a part of growing old that most men will eventually have to deal with, if they live long enough. While it is true that an enlarged prostate is very common in older men, this is a completely different issue than prostate cancer, which is often fatal, and unfortunately far too common. However, with a little education and some proactive choices, the chances of developing prostate cancer can be greatly reduced. Keeping the prostate healthy is much easier and more effective than dealing with prostate cancer after the fact.
What Is the Prostate?
The prostate or prostate gland is an organ that is located in men just below the bladder and surrounding the urethra, which is the tube that runs from the end of the penis to the bladder. It is a gland that is about the size of a walnut, and resembles a small donut. It plays some very important roles, including secretion of a thin, milky, fluid that is alkaline in nature, and is responsible for both lubricating the urethra to prevent infection, and increasing the mobility of sperm. The secretions also play an important part in aiding fertilization of the female’s egg by the sperm. The prostate seems to be involved in just about every function of “maleness.” The prostate, seminal vesicles, and testicles are the “3 Amigos” that work together to produce the glandular secretions that compose semen. Any problem with the prostate interferes with this delicate network and can make normal functioning of the urinary and/or reproductive systems impossible.
There are two major problems that often affect the prostate: Prostate enlargement, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and prostate cancer. It is not the scope of this article to cover the details of BPH, other than to say that many of the preventative measures that can help avoid prostate cancer may also help prevent BPH. Many cases of prostate cancer are preceded by bouts of BPH, but the jury is still our as far as if BPH can actually increase the chances of developing prostate cancer. Some say yes, others say there is not enough evidence to make such a correlation. However, the steps we will discuss to maintain prostate health will help prevent both of these conditions.
What is Prostate Cancer?
Prostate cancer, as with any cancer, involves the abnormal and uncontrollable growth of cells in the prostate that form into tumors. Prostate cancer often grows slowly, but it can become very aggressive and quickly spread to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes, lungs, and bones in the hip and pelvic areas.
Prostate cancer is the most commonly found of all cancers in American men, and the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in males the U.S. (Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in American men). Over 185,000 cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed every year in this country, and they typically lead to a minimum of 40,000 deaths annually. There are many risk factors for prostate cancer, some which can be avoided, and some which can’t, as we will discuss in a few moments. One of the most significant risks for prostate cancer is race. For reasons that are not fully understood, African-American men have twice the incidence of prostate cancer as that of Caucasian-Americans, and the mortality rate is doubled for blacks as well.
What Are the Symptoms of Prostate Cancer?
One of the main problems regarding prostate cancer is that often there are no symptoms, or very minimal ones, until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, which is a much more serious situation. Therefore, it is recommended that men over the age of 50 (45 for African-Americans) should undergo several simple tests that can indicate prostate cancer and catch it early. The most common and important ones are:
- Digital Rectal Exam (DRE): This involves your practitioner inserting a gloved finger into your rectum and feeling the prostate for any lumps or abnormalities. The majority of tumors begin in the posterior section of the prostate, near the rectum, so this exam gives a good indication of any potential problems that may be developing.
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test: This simple blood test measures the amount of PSA, a substance naturally produced by the prostate to help make semen, that is found in your bloodstream. It is normal for low amounts to be found in the blood, but levels are compared with normal ones for your age group, and excessive amounts may indicate either BPH or possible prostate cancer. Cancerous prostates will produce abnormal amounts of this protein, and it may leach into your blood.
- If one or both of these tests are positive, your provider may suggest a transrectal ultrasound. This test involves the insertion of a probe (about the size and shape of a cigar) into your rectum that can provide a fairly accurate picture of your prostate gland. If you choose to undergo this procedure, be sure that the administrator of the test is qualified and experienced, as it is possible to injure your internal organs if the procedure is not done properly and with care.
If symptoms for prostate cancer do appear, the most typical ones are the following. Keep in mind that many of these signs are not specific to prostate cancer, and may indicate BPH or other genitourinary problems:
- Difficulty urinating
- Painful urination
- Loss of urine control
- Weak urine flow, with dribbling
- Inability to fully empty your bladder
- Frequent nighttime urination
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Painful ejaculation
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Bone pain, especially in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs
The chances of developing prostate cancer increase with certain factors that are beyond our control:
- Age: Most prostate cancer cases are found in men over 55, with about 80% being over 65. The average age of onset is about 70.
- Family history: Men whose fathers had prostate cancer have twice the risk. If their brother(s) has had it, the risk increases to five-fold. Interestingly enough, risk is also increased if their mother or sister(s) have had breast cancer. This is perhaps a hormonal connection.
- Male-pattern baldness: Men who experience this type of hair loss starting in their mid-twenties, have a 50% greater chance of prostate cancer than men who don’t. Researchers are not sure exactly why this is, but nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves. It may be related to testosterone levels in the body. Male-pattern baldness has also been linked to an increased risk for heart disease as well.
What Can I Do to Prevent Prostate Cancer?
Now that we have a pretty good overview of prostate cancer, and some of the risk factors that are unavoidable, let’s get down to the good part and learn about some proactive steps that can be taken to reduce risk.
- Diet: All types of cancer are affected by what we put in our bodies, but prostate cancer in particular has been clearly linked to certain types of food. A high-fat diet, especially high in saturated animal fats, and the consumption of red meats have been clinically tied to an increased risk for prostate cancer. In fact, the staff at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer research center has gone as far as to label prostate cancer a “nutritional disease.” Studies have shown that one way to significantly reduce your risk for prostate cancer is to:
- Stay away from grilled and broiled meat
- Minimize or avoid all dairy products, which are high in animal fats
- Load up on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, specifically those from the cabbage family
- Eat cold-water fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Statistics show that folks who generally eat such diets, like the Chinese and Japanese, as well as Seventh-Day Adventists, have a much lower rate of prostate cancer than the general population.
- Lycopene: Studies from Harvard University and other research groups have indicated a measurable decrease in prostate cancer for men who take in at least 6.5 mg/day this red carotene nutrient found in tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, and pink grapefruit. Results were also very encouraging for men who already had prostate cancer. Consumption of 15 mg/day of lycopene shrank the size of tumors, slowed their growth, and dropped PSA levels in many of the patients in the study.
- Vitamin E: Supplementation with vitamin E has also shown encouraging hope for fighting and avoiding prostate cancer. Green-leafy vegetables and many nuts are great dietary sources of vitamin E as well. While vitamin E alone is a useful tool to combat prostate cancer, the effect of combining lycopene with vitamin E is even more dramatic. They seem to have a catalytic effect on each other that increases the effectiveness of both.
- Green Tea: Again, a habit from the orient proves to be a great inhibitor of prostate cancer. Polyphenols in green tea are thought to be the agent that fights off prostate cancer in men, and incidentally, breast cancer in women as well. One reason prostate cancer is so low in Japan is because the average Japanese man drinks about 3 cups of green tea per day. If you are concerned about the caffeine, green tea supplements are available that can give the same benefits without the caffeine.
- Selenium and Vitamin C: Getting enough of these nutrients is also thought to lower the risk of prostate cancer as well, although the clinical evidence is not as strong as it is for others such as lycopene, vitamin E, and green tea.
- The best thing any man can do to decrease risk for prostate cancer is to combine all of the above. These suggestions have clinical backing to support their effectiveness, and can significantly reduce the risk for prostate cancer. This is not theory folks—there is hard science to back it up. When such clear and reachable steps can be taken to reduce a major killer like prostate cancer, it should be shouted from the rooftops!
Prostate cancer, or any debilitating disease, is not inevitable, no matter how many lives it claims. It is truly exciting when we can grasp the impact of lifestyle changes that can literally eliminate most cases of a disease that unnecessarily kills tens of thousands of American men every year.