Prostate cancer: What you need to know


In this article: 

  • Over the past few decades, researchers have discovered new approaches to diagnosing and treating prostate cancer that can help patients live better and longer.

  • Many of the new treatments available deliver personalized, targeted therapy that doesn’t harm healthy tissue.

  • Understanding your risk of prostate cancer and managing the factors in your control can help prevent the disease from developing.

Prostate cancer affects close to 300,000 men each year in the United States, with around 1 in 8 men diagnosed during their lifetime. In fact, after skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer affecting men in this country.

Luckily, advances in how doctors diagnose and treat the disease are helping men with prostate cancer live longer and better lives. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, or have a family history of the disease and are worried about a future diagnosis, Swedish experts can help.

We talked to James Porter, M.D., medical director for robotic surgery at Swedish Urology First Hill, to learn more about what people should know about prostate cancer and its treatment.

What you should know about prostate cancer

Prostate cancer develops when cells in the prostate gland, which sits just below the bladder and in front of the rectum, begin to grow out of control.

Risk factors for the disease are a combination of things you may be able to control and things you can’t, like your age and family history.

Prostate cancer is rare in men younger than 40, but the risk begins to rise rapidly after age 50. It also seems to run in some families, meaning genetics are a strong driver, Dr. Porter says. A family history of prostate cancer means you have a first-degree relative — a parent, sibling or child — who has been diagnosed with the disease.

Prostate cancer is also linked to certain gene changes, including inherited mutations of the BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genes, which are associated with an increased risk of breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, too.

If you or a loved one has a family history of prostate cancer, or of a cancer linked to a BRCA gene mutation, a genetic counselor can help determine whether genetic testing could give you a more accurate understanding of your risk for developing the disease.

Also, although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends men talk to their doctor about starting prostate cancer screenings at age 55 — and continuing with them regularly until they’re 69. Dr. Porter advises men with a family history of prostate cancer to talk to their doctor about starting screenings before age 55, and potentially as early as their 40s.  Screenings can help catch prostate cancer early, when it’s smaller and easier to treat.

The tests involve a simple blood test to measure the level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, in the blood. PSA is a protein produced by cells in the prostate gland.

Although PSA levels are often higher in people with prostate cancer, Dr. Porter stresses that the rate of rise is more important than the level itself. “It’s important to get a baseline number then retest annually or every two years,” he says. “We advise further evaluation when that level is going up steadily. That’s concerning.”

While you can’t take preventive steps to change things like your age or family history you may be able to lower your risk of developing the disease in other ways. For example, men who eat diets high in animal protein have an increased risk for prostate cancer, Dr. Porter says, adding, “Improving your diet, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, can help lead to better outcomes.”

If you are diagnosed with prostate cancer, or if you have a loved one who is diagnosed with the disease, remember you’re not alone. There are plenty of support groups available and online resources that can help. Swedish offers classes and support groups, for instance, for both patients and their caregivers.

Advanced tools for prostate cancer

You should also take comfort in knowing that doctors are better able to find and target prostate cancer than ever before. While just a few decades ago, you or your loved one would have faced a challenging surgery and an often-grueling radiation therapy regimen, today, doctors can more precisely detect the location of cancer cells at the time of diagnosis and use that information to guide more personalized treatments.

For example, doctors can now use a PET scan to locate tiny amounts of prostate cancer that have spread, either outside the prostate or to the surrounding lymph nodes. They do this by binding an antibody to a protein found almost exclusively on prostate cells called prostate-specific membrane antigen, or PSMA.

Because doctors can better locate where cancer has spread, they can make more informed treatment decisions, Dr. Porter says. “Although it doesn’t tell us where all the cancer is, it gives us a better handle on the extent of the disease at the time of diagnosis, which is more information than we had before,” he says.

Researchers have also discovered ways to deliver radiation directly to cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue. This targeted therapy, called PLUVICTO®, is employed in the treatment of prostate cancer that’s spread.

Another treatment method is stereotactic radiosurgery, known as CyberKnife®, which delivers high-dose radiation to cancer while avoiding non-cancerous cells. The Swedish Radiosurgery Center is the only facility in the Pacific Northwest to offer CyberKnife. In addition, they use internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, to destroy cancer and spare nearby healthy tissue and organs.

Using these targeted radiation treatments can help you recover more quickly, Dr. Porter says. They may also help you experience fewer side effects and need fewer courses of treatment.

More targeted treatments are improving the surgical experience for men with prostate cancer, too. Technological advances like the da Vinci® robotic surgical system, for instance, allow surgeons to perform complex minimally invasive procedures with precision, so you can recover faster, with less pain, blood loss and a reduced risk of complications.

Still, “prostate cancer treatments are only helpful if patients are diagnosed early,” Dr. Porter says, which is why prevention and regular screenings are so important.


Learn more and find a practitioner

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Primary Care to schedule an appointment with a primary care practitioner. You can also connect virtually with your doctor to review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. And with Swedish ExpressCare Virtual you can receive treatment in minutes for common conditions such as colds, flu, urinary tract infections, and more. You can also use our provider directory to find a specialist or primary care physician near you. 

Learn more about prostate cancer treatment at Swedish, or find a location. You can also talk to someone or schedule an appointment by calling 1-855-XCANCER.

Information for patients and visitors 

Related resources

Prostate cancer: All hands on deck for treatment success | The Seattle Times

At Swedish, a robotic surgery milestone

Swedish is home to some of the country's most advanced surgical techniques

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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