Throughout November, you may notice a hair-raising trend among men: more beards and mustaches. It’s all about raising awareness of prostate cancer. What you may not know is this trend has particular importance for men in Wisconsin, where prostate cancer is more common than any other type of cancer. Nationally, one in seven men develops prostate cancer. The good news is that if it’s detected early, there are more treatment options and better outcomes than if it’s found later, at an advanced stage. Because prostate cancer often has no symptoms, it is important men (or the women in their lives) know the basic facts about prostate cancer and how to detect it.
Here are answers to five important questions about prostate health.
1. What is a PSA level?
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein in a man’s blood, and a man’s PSA level reflects the amount of PSA protein found in his blood. The cells of the prostate gland produce PSA, and it is made by cancerous and noncancerous cells of the prostate tissue. Age, size of the prostate gland and medications can affect a man’s PSA level. PSA level is tested during prostate cancer screening.
2. Why does it matter?
Prostate cancer cells usually produce more PSA than benign cells, causing PSA levels in blood to rise. PSA levels can also indicate other conditions like inflammation, infection, or a benign prostate condition such as prostatitis or enlarged prostate. Therefore, determining what a high PSA score means can be complicated.
3. Should I get a PSA test?
The PSA test is currently the best tool we have to screen for potential prostate cancer risk. Most experts agree that screening is not for everyone; that’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor. Men should have a conversation with their doctor about whether, when and how often to have a prostate cancer screening.
Prostate cancer experts at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network support the American Cancer Society guidelines, which recommend that men at average risk discuss prostate cancer screening with their physicians beginning at age 50. Average risk is defined as men without risk factors. Risk factors include African-American race, a family history of prostate cancer in multiple generations and/or family history of early onset (younger than age 65).
The discussion should happen at age 45 for African-American men or those with a father, brother or son who had prostate cancer younger than age 65. Men who have more than one first-degree relative who had prostate cancer at a younger age should have that conversation at age 40. PSA testing is not recommended for men past age 70; that’s another opportunity for a discussion with your doctor.
4. What happens during screening?
A PSA test involves having your blood drawn and sent to a lab for testing. Your doctor may also manually examine your prostate. He or she will keep you informed about results and any next steps needed. If your doctor is concerned that you might have prostate cancer based on your PSA level or a manual exam, a biopsy to remove a small amount of tissue from the prostate will be the next step. This is the only way to test for the presence of cancer.
Although a PSA test is used mainly to screen for prostate cancer, the results may be used to guide treatment recommendations if cancer is found. Your PSA test may help determine how advanced a cancer is, and after treatment, PSA levels can help determine if treatment was successful.
5. What can I do about it?
- Talk to your doctor about whether screening is right for you.
- Know your risk factors: Your age, race or ethnicity and family history all play a role.
- Watch your diet and weight. Obesity and eating a high-fat diet may increase a person’s risk of developing prostate cancer.
- Choose a care team with experts who specialize in prostate cancer.
Ultimately, whether you have a PSA test is something you should decide after discussing it with your physician. In the meantime, for the rest of November, consider growing your facial hair and when people ask why, remind them to talk to their doctors about prostate cancer.