Doug is a real person. In 2002, he was 49 years old. When he went for his annual check-up, his family physician found a "pebbly" lump in his prostate with a digital rectal exam (DRE). The doctor assured him that he probably had nothing to worry about, but, being a thorough physician, he sent Doug for a follow-up prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. Doug's PSA score was very low and safely outside the cancer range. Just to be sure, however, the doctor sent him to a urologist, who ordered a biopsy a month later. He had prostate cancer, and it was on the brink of spreading beyond his prostate.
Doug had had no warning signs, nothing more than a bit of feeling of urgency and frequency of urination. He was only 49; the average age a man is diagnosed with prostate cancer is 65. Nobody in his family has ever had prostate cancer. He was in total shock. "It can destroy your confidence when you get cancer," Doug explains. "Most of time you do a test and it comes back negative – you get used to getting the all-clear."
Prostate cancer is considered a slow-growing cancer, so screening is the number one way that a man can win the battle. Prostate cancer shares many of the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a generally harmless condition, but it can often have no symptoms at all.
The digital rectal exam (DRE) is a simple, painless examination. Your doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate for changes in size, density, texture, and any other abnormalities. An enlarged prostate does not necessarily mean there are any cancer tumours present; it may just be a sign of BPH. BPH is not related to prostate cancer, and about half of all men over 50 have it. However, enlargements and other irregularities such as lumps and hardening should still be investigated and may require more tests. While digital rectal exams are still routinely performed, recent studies have found that they may not be accurate in predicting prostate cancer.
The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test is used to detect prostate cancer by measuring levels of PSA. Men with prostate cancer often have more PSA, so their score is higher. There are some cases where some men with prostate cancer will have normal PSA levels, like Doug. This test is considered a better indicator of whether a man may have prostate problems. However, there are other conditions that can cause elevated PSA levels. PSA testing can be done in conjunction with a DRE.
Biopsies confirm cancer
The next step of diagnosis is to perform a biopsy of the prostate. This is the only way to confirm cancerous tissue. A biopsy is a simple procedure that involves the removal of tissue so it can be further analyzed to determine if cancer cells are present and to estimate how aggressive it is. If cancer is present in the prostate, you will begin to discuss treatment options with your doctor.
Other tests are also available to help diagnose prostate cancer and/or rule out other conditions.
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