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Prostate Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 09/12/2014

General Information About Prostate Cancer



Prostate cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the prostate.

The prostate is a gland in the male reproductive system. It lies just below the bladder (the organ that collects and empties urine) and in front of the rectum (the lower part of the intestine). It is about the size of a walnut and surrounds part of the urethra (the tube that empties urine from the bladder). The prostate gland makes fluid that is part of the semen.

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Anatomy of the  male reproductive and urinary systems; drawing shows front and side views of ureters, lymph nodes, rectum, bladder, prostate gland, vas deferens,  penis, testicles, urethra, seminal vesicle, and ejaculatory duct.
Anatomy of the male reproductive and urinary systems, showing the prostate, testicles, bladder, and other organs.


Prostate cancer is found mainly in older men. In the U.S., about 1 out of 5 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Signs of prostate cancer include a weak flow of urine or frequent urination.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by prostate cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Weak or interrupted ("stop-and-go") flow of urine.
  • Sudden urge to urinate.
  • Frequent urination (especially at night).
  • Trouble starting the flow of urine.
  • Trouble emptying the bladder completely.
  • Pain or burning while urinating.
  • Blood in the urine or semen.
  • A pain in the back, hips, or pelvis that doesn't go away.
  • Shortness of breath, feeling very tired, fast heartbeat, dizziness, or pale skin caused by anemia.

Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. As men age, the prostate may get bigger and block the urethra or bladder. This may cause trouble urinating or sexual problems. The condition is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and although it is not cancer, surgery may be needed. The symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia or of other problems in the prostate may be like symptoms of prostate cancer.

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Two-panel drawing shows normal male reproductive and urinary anatomy and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Panel on the left shows the normal prostate and flow of urine from the bladder through the urethra. Panel on the right shows an enlarged prostate pressing on the bladder and urethra, blocking the flow of urine.
Normal prostate and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). A normal prostate does not block the flow of urine from the bladder. An enlarged prostate presses on the bladder and urethra and blocks the flow of urine.

Tests that examine the prostate and blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose prostate cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate through the rectal wall for lumps or abnormal areas.
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    Digital rectal exam; drawing shows a side view of the male reproductive and urinary anatomy, including the prostate, rectum, and bladder; also shows a gloved and lubricated finger inserted into the rectum to feel the prostate.
    Digital rectal exam (DRE). The doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum and feels the prostate to check for anything abnormal.

  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test : A test that measures the level of PSA in the blood. PSA is a substance made by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer. PSA levels may also be high in men who have an infection or inflammation of the prostate or BPH (an enlarged, but noncancerous, prostate).

  • Transrectal ultrasound : A procedure in which a probe that is about the size of a finger is inserted into the rectum to check the prostate. The probe is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. Transrectal ultrasound may be used during a biopsy procedure.
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    Transrectal ultrasound; drawing shows a side view of the male reproductive and urinary anatomy including the prostate, anus, rectum, and bladder; also shows an  ultrasound probe inserted into the rectum to check the prostate. Inset shows patient lying on back on a  table having a transrectal ultrasound procedure.
    Transrectal ultrasound. An ultrasound probe is inserted into the rectum to check the prostate. The probe bounces sound waves off body tissues to make echoes that form a sonogram (computer picture) of the prostate.

  • Transrectal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A procedure that uses a strong magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. A probe that gives off radio waves is inserted into the rectum near the prostate. This helps the MRI machine make clearer pictures of the prostate and nearby tissue. A transrectal MRI is done to find out if the cancer has spread outside the prostate into nearby tissues. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist will check the tissue sample to see if there are cancer cells and find out the Gleason score. The Gleason score ranges from 2-10 and describes how likely it is that a tumor will spread. The lower the number, the less likely the tumor is to spread.

    A transrectal biopsy is used to diagnose prostate cancer. A transrectal biopsy is the removal of tissue from the prostate by inserting a thin needle through the rectum and into the prostate. This procedure is usually done using transrectal ultrasound to help guide where samples of tissue are taken from. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

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    Transrectal biopsy; drawing shows a side view of the prostate, bladder, and rectum. Drawing also shows an ultrasound probe with a needle inserted into the rectum to remove a tissue sample from the prostate.
    Transrectal biopsy. An ultrasound probe is inserted into the rectum to show where the tumor is. Then a needle is inserted through the rectum into the prostate to remove tissue from the prostate.


Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (level of PSA, Gleason score, grade of the tumor, how much of the prostate is affected by the cancer, and whether the cancer has spread to other places in the body).
  • The patient’s age.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Treatment options also may depend on the following:

  • Whether the patient has other health problems.
  • The expected side effects of treatment.
  • Past treatment for prostate cancer.
  • The wishes of the patient.

Most men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die of it.