Prostate Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2018

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Prostate Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

About the prostate

The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located behind the base of a man’s penis, in front of the rectum, and below the bladder. It surrounds the urethra, the tube-like channel that carries urine and semen through the penis. The prostate's main function is to make seminal fluid, the liquid in semen that protects, supports, and helps transport sperm.

As men get older, the prostate continues to enlarge over time. This can lead to a condition called benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), which is when the urethra becomes blocked. BPH is a common condition associated with growing older, and it can cause symptoms similar to those of prostate cancer. BPH has not been associated with a greater risk of having prostate cancer.

About prostate cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells in the prostate change and grow out of control, forming a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Prostate cancer is somewhat unusual when compared with other types of cancer. This is because many prostate tumors do not spread quickly to other parts of the body. Some prostate cancers grow very slowly and may not cause symptoms or problems for years or ever. Even when prostate cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it often can be managed for a long time, allowing men even with advanced prostate cancer to live with good health and quality of life for many years. However, if the cancer cannot be well controlled with existing treatments, it can cause symptoms like pain and fatigue and can sometimes lead to death. An important part of managing prostate cancer is monitoring it for growth over time, to determine whether it is growing slowly or quickly. Based on the pattern of growth, your doctor can decide the best available treatment options and when to give them.

About prostate-specific antigen (PSA)

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced by cells in the prostate gland and released into the bloodstream. PSA levels are measured using a blood test. Although there is no such thing as a “normal PSA” for any man at any given age, a higher-than-normal level of PSA can be found in men with prostate cancer. Other non-cancerous prostate conditions, such as BPH (see above) or prostatitis can also lead to an elevated PSA level. Prostatitis is the inflammation or infection of the prostate. In addition, some activities like ejaculation can temporarily increase PSA levels. This should be avoided before a PSA test to avoid falsely elevated tests. See the Screening section for more information.

Histology is how cancer cells look under a microscope. The most common histology found in prostate cancer is called adenocarcinoma. Other, less common histologic types include neuroendocrine prostate cancer and small cell prostate cancer. These rare variants tend to be more aggressive, produce much less PSA, and spread outside the prostate earlier. Read more about neuroendocrine tumors.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of men who are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.