Early Prostate Cancer: Questions and Answers

What is the prostate?

The prostate is a gland in the male reproductive system. The prostate makes and stores a component of semen and is located in the pelvis, under the bladder and in front of the rectum. The prostate surrounds part of the urethra, the tube that empties urine from the bladder. A healthy prostate is about the size of a walnut. Because of the prostate's location, the flow of urine can be slowed or stopped if the prostate grows too large.

What is prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer forms in the tissues of the prostate. Except for skin cancer, cancer of the prostate is the most common malignancy in American men. It is estimated that 218,890 men in the United States will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007. In most men with prostate cancer, the disease grows very slowly. The majority of men with low-grade, early prostate cancer (which means that cancer cells have been found only in the prostate gland) live a long time after their diagnosis. Even without treatment, many of these men will not die of the prostate cancer, but rather will live with it until they eventually die of some other, unrelated cause. Nevertheless, it is estimated that nearly 27,000 men will die from prostate cancer in 2007.

Who is at risk for prostate cancer?

An important risk factor is age; more than 70 percent of men diagnosed with this disease are over the age of 65. African American men have a substantially higher risk of prostate cancer than white men, including Hispanic men. Dramatic differences in the incidence of prostate cancer are also seen in different populations around the world. There is some evidence that dietary factors are involved, such as vitamin E and selenium, which may have a protective effect. Genetic factors also appear to play a role, particularly for families in which the diagnosis is made in men under age 60. The risk of prostate cancer rises with the number of close relatives who have the disease.