Understanding the basic functions of your prostate gland can help catch prostate cancer early.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Rebecca Wallersteiner
Every year 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK, making it the most common type of cancer in men. But according to the Prostate Cancer Charity, two thirds of British men don’t actually know what their prostate does.
Understanding the basic functions of the prostate gland and learning about the symptoms of prostate cancer can help to catch it early, when treatment success rates are at their highest.
Read our 10 interesting facts about the prostate gland, your health and prostate cancer prevention tips:
1.The prostate gland is a muscle
Only men have a prostate, a muscular gland that produces some of the ingredients of semen. The role of the prostate is to make seminal fluid, which is mixed with sperm to make semen. The muscle in the walls of the gland allows it to squirt the seminal fluid out with force.
- The prostate gland is the size of a walnut
The prostate is a walnut-sized gland situated just below the bladder between the root of the penis and the anus.
In older men with prostate problems it may swell from the size of a walnut to that of a plum. If the prostate grows too big, urine flow may be weaker, but prostate size is not related to prostate cancer.
- You can spot prostate cancer symptoms
Worrying prostate symptoms to look out for include needing to urinate more during the night, dribbling before or after urinating, and a weak urine flow. Less common symptoms include pain in the testicles, problems getting an erection, pain when ejaculating, pain when passing urine and blood in the urine.
Worrying prostate symptoms to look out for include needing to urinate more during the night.
Prostate cancer doesn’t always affect the urinary stream until the disease is advanced, so urine flow isn’t a reliable indicator on its own. There are a variety of reasons for a change in the pressure of urine flow, such as a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate, called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostatitis – inflammation or infection of the prostate. If your once normal urine stream has dwindled to a trickle, visit your GP.
- Age is a factor with prostate cancer
Prostate cancer usually affects men over 50 and approximately half of this age group also show signs of prostate enlargement. According to Cancer Research UK, the largest number of cases is in those aged 75 to 79.
One in 25 men (3.8 per cent) will die from the disease and in the UK, around eight in 10 newly diagnosed prostate cancer patients now survive beyond ten years.
Prostatitis can affect men of any age.
- The PSA test can help diagnose prostate cancer.
To rule out prostate cancer, your GP usually suggests that you have a PSA test. This is a blood test that measures the level of a protein called Prostate specific antigen (PSA). PSA is produced in the prostate gland and found in small amounts in the blood.
A raised PSA level can be a warning sign of the presence of prostate cancer and other problems.
A raised PSA level can be a warning sign of the presence of prostate cancer. It can also indicate other problems that aren’t cancer – three out of four men with a raised PSA level will not have prostate cancer. PSA levels can also be normal when a cancer is present. This is why PSA is not used as a general screening test. However, the higher the PSA level, the greater the likelihood of a cancer being present.
- Prostate cancer is genetic
Look at your family tree. Has your father, grandfather, uncle or brother had prostate cancer? If this is the case, then you may have a higher risk of developing the disease.
Tell your doctor if any family members have had the disease, they can discuss what symptoms you need to look out for and whether you need to have any blood tests to monitor your PSA.
- Diet may affect the prostate gland
To maintain a healthy prostate gland, try to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. There is no convincing evidence that any particular foods will definitely reduce your risk of prostate cancer but some studies have shown benefit from:
- Eating selenium
There is some evidence that selenium, a trace mineral, helps lower the risk of prostate cancer by combating cell damage. Selenium is found in broccoli, Brazil nuts, seafood, asparagus, brown rice and onions. Selenium can also be taken in supplement form and works best when combined with vitamin E and zinc.
- Following a mediterranean diet
Mediterranean men have a lower prostate cancer rate and this is believed to be down to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, garlic, olive oil, fish and tomatoes. Tomatoes contain a bright red pigment called lycopene, a powerful carotenoid antioxidant, which helps to repair damaged cells.
According to an American study of 47,000 men over six years, those who had at least 10 servings a week of tomato-based foods were up to 45 per cent less likely to develop prostate cancer.
- Obesity affects prostate cancer
There is also a clear link between obesity and cancer – putting on those extra cuddly pounds around your waist can double your cancer risk.
Scientists in Boston found that maintaining a healthy weight and diet helps cancer sufferers live longer. Results of the trial, involving over 900 men, showed that overweight men with prostate cancer doubled their risk of death in the five years after the study, compared to men who maintained a healthy weight.
Try to achieve and maintain a healthy weight through eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. It is best to lose weight slowly, just one or two pounds a week. Make small changes to your diet every day such as swapping sweet treats for crunchy vegetables. Small changes soon add up. Ask your practice nurse or GP for help with losing weight if you are finding it difficult.
There is a clear link between obesity and cancer and extra pounds around your waist can double your cancer risk.
Alcohol intake is linked to certain types of cancer but it’s not known yet if there’s any link with prostate cancer.
- Hydration could be linked to prostate health
Japanese and Chinese men have very low levels of prostate cancer and green tea is thought to be one reason why. Green tea is rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties which could potentially reduce cancer risk.
Alcohol and fizzy drinks are rich in sugar, which can pile on the pounds. We know obesity is linked to cancer so switch to water instead to reduce calories, help flush out the kidneys and keep the body hydrated.
- Exercise can impact prostate health
Keeping active helps to balance hormone levels, prevent obesity and boost the immune system. Regular exercise helps to reduce your risk of many types of cancer and some studies show that it might have an effect in reducing prostate cancer risk too.
And it’s never too late – studies have shown that exercise is still beneficial for men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer and are receiving treatment for it.
Aim for 150 minutes per week of exercise that makes you feel a bit out of breath. Don’t worry if you can’t manage this though, even small amounts can make a difference to your health. Brisk walking is enough, just gradually build up the time you spend doing it. You should also try to avoid sitting for long periods of time too.