Prostate Cancer again

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I make no excuses for running another article on Prostate cancer. Fifty percent of people in Thailand are male and 98 percent of them have a prostate which can turn nasty and bite them! (What happened to the 2 percent? They’ve had their prostate removed already.)

A few weeks ago I touched on dietary and environmental issues related to prostate cancer, which may (repeat ‘may’) have some bearing on the outcome, after a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

However, a friend found that he had an elevated Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) and the following examinations showed that the elevation was caused through cancer, not one of the other causes of PSA elevation. Yes, PSA is not a go/no go test. Elevation of PSA is a warning to go looking.

However, prostate cancer is common. The statistics show that by age 50, almost 50 percent of American men will have microscopic signs of prostate cancer. By age 75, almost 75 percent of men will have some cancerous changes in their prostate glands. Do the maths. By 100 we’ve all got it!

So does this mean that life really ends at around 76? Fortunately no. Most of these cancers stay within the prostate, producing no signs or symptoms, or are so slow-growing, that they never become a serious threat to health. The good news is you die of something else before the prostate gets you! You die with it, rather than from it. That is an important fact to take in. This we call watchful waiting and serial PSA’s are the way to go, as well as getting friendly with your local urologist.

The real situation is that a much smaller number of men will actually be treated for prostate cancer. About 16 percent of American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lives; 8 percent will develop significant symptoms; but only 3 percent will die of the disease. Put another much more positive way, 97 percent won’t die from their prostate cancer.

While some prostate cancers can be ‘aggressive’, breaking out from the prostate gland itself and attacking other tissues, including brain and bone, fortunately this is the minority scenario. The great majority of prostate cancers are slow growing, and it can be decades between the early diagnosis and the cancer growing large enough to produce symptoms. That’s the second important fact to take in.

So let’s look at diagnosis and get the “blood test” out of the way first. The blood test is called Prostate Specific Antigen, or PSA for short (we medico’s love acronyms). Up till then we had another test called DRE (digital rectal examination), which, quite frankly, was not all that popular. As medical students, we were taught “If you don’t put your finger in it, you’ll put your foot in it!” Despite this, ‘buyer resistance’ was high, so when news came through about a “blood test”, millions of men began rejoicing and the sale of rubber gloves plummeted. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, PSA is not a go/no-go test. A normal range test doesn’t guarantee you haven’t got it, and an elevated result doesn’t automatically mean that you are about to claim early on your life insurance (or your dependents, anyway).

However, there is good news. Serial PSA examinations can show the rate of cancer growth, and the rate of increase is more significant.

Like many other cancers, prostate cancer can only be fully diagnosed and ‘staged’ by biopsy. ‘Staging’ has four main grades. Stage I cannot be felt and is diagnosed through pathological testing. Stage II can be felt, but it is confined to the prostate. Stage III is coming out of the gland and Stage IV has grown into nearby tissues.

This is where you need to discuss your options with your doctor. If you are a young man with stage IV, then you have to make up your mind quickly. But if you are 75 with stage I or II, then you have more time, as you will most likely die of other causes before the prostate cancer gets you. For these people, “Watch and Wait” has much going for it, but you must be prepared to get to know your urologist, so pick a young one.