The prostate (not prostrate) uses male hormones called androgens, such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT), to trigger and maintain male sex characteristics and reproduction. Normally, the process of producing male hormones and using them to guide and maintain male gender characteristics and sexual function happens smoothly.
Learn more about healthy prostate gland function.
How Prostate Cancer Develops
However, sometimes something goes wrong within prostate cells, and cancer develops.
In general, cancer is a condition in which a normal cell becomes abnormal and starts to grow and/or reproduce uncontrollably without having the signals or “brakes” that stop typical cell growth. Prostate cancer occurs when a normal prostate cell begins to grow out of control. In many cases, prostate cancer is a slow-growing cancer that does not spread beyond the prostate gland before the time of diagnosis.
Once prostate cancer forms, it feeds on androgens and uses them as fuel for growth. This is why one of the backbones of treatment for men, especially with advanced prostate cancer, is to lower a man’s androgen levels with drugs collectively termed “hormone therapy.”
Not all prostate cancer cells are alike. Prostate cancers that are composed of very abnormal cells are much more likely to both divide quickly and spread, or metastasize, from the prostate to other regions of the body. Often, prostate cancer spreads first to tissues that are near the prostate, including the seminal vesicles and nearby lymph nodes.
Researchers have identified various biological and genetic subtypes of prostate cancer. Although these subtypes are typically not yet used to guide treatment recommendations, they are the subject of active research funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
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In many cases, prostate cancer is relatively slow-growing, which means that it can take years to become large enough to be detectable, and even longer to metastasize outside the prostate. However, some cases are more aggressive and need more urgent treatment.
When a man is diagnosed with prostate cancer, his treatment team will evaluate his cancer and his overall health to custom-design a treatment path that will give him the greatest chance of beating the cancer. Treatment can range from a wait-and-watch approach to a very aggressive medical and surgical plan.