Prostate Cancer Basics
Whether you or someone you know has been recently diagnosed with prostate cancer or you are simply interested in learning more about this important disease, there are three key questions that need to be answered.
What Is the Prostate?
The prostate is a small, walnut-sized gland that exists only in men. It is situated just below the bladder and just in front of the rectum in the lower pelvis.
The bladder acts as a storage area for urine. When the bladder is emptied, the urine travels through a thin tube called the urethra to the penis and then out. The very beginning of the urethra as it leaves the bladder passes directly through the prostate. This fact accounts for why so many men with either prostate cancer or BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia) develop trouble urinating. As the prostate enlarges, the urethra is pinched off, leaving a smaller tube to carry urine from the bladder to outside the body.
The prostate’s primary function is to produce much of the fluid that makes up semen. Semen acts to protect sperm as it makes its way out of the body.
The prostate is present from before birth and grows in response to male hormones such as testosterone. Blocking the production or effects of these hormones is one of the primary treatment options for prostate cancer.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is most simply explained as cells in a certain part of the body that have started to grow in an out-of-control and unregulated fashion.
The human body is made up of billions of tiny units called cells. These are the smallest structures in the body that can be considered to be living. They can only be seen under high-powered microscopes. Cells normally go through a life cycle of growth, division, and death. When this occurs in an orderly fashion, cells are created and die in roughly equal numbers. They also normally stay confined to the area of the body in which they were meant to be.
Unfortunately, certain cells sometimes begin to multiply much faster than they die. When this happens, these abnormal cells squeeze out nearby normal cells. These abnormal cancerous cells can also spread outside of their original site in the body and spread to other areas. When cancer from one body site has spread to other areas of the body, the cancer can be said to have “metastasized". This is always an unfortunate occurrence as cancer that has spread is much harder to treat in general.
A cancer is named after its original site in the body. For example, prostate cancer, even if it were to spread to the bones or to the colon would still be called prostate cancer and not bone or colon cancer. This would more appropriately be called “prostate cancer with metastasis to the bone.”
All types of cancer are different. For example, prostate cancer is very different from lung cancer. The two are caused by different factors, diagnosed in different ways, and treated differently. Regardless of the type of cancer, the underlying problem is the unregulated and abnormal growth of the cells in that part of the body.
What Is Prostate Cancer?
Since cancer is the uncontrolled and abnormal growth of cells in a certain area of the body, prostate cancer is simply the uncontrolled and abnormal growth of cells in the prostate.
Some men have BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). This is often confused with prostate cancer. With BPH, prostate cells multiply faster than they should. This causes the prostate to enlarge and the patient to develop difficulty urinating. With prostate cancer, the cells not only multiply faster, but also behave abnormally by spreading outside of the prostate if not caught in time. BPH is not cancer, but can show some of the same symptoms.
The prostate is made up of many different types of cells. The gland cells (those cells that actually work to produce the fluid that is released into the semen) however, are nearly always the cells that become cancerous. The technical medical term for cancer that arises from gland cells is adenocarcinoma. Thus, the technical term for prostate cancer is prostate (or prostatic) adenocarcinoma.
Additionally, this video provides an excellent illustration and explanation of the prostate's location and function.