Your prostate feels like a pincushion, and you’ve been waiting for the biopsy results. They’re finally here. Now what?

That’s a good question. You might think that the diagnosis of prostate cancer would be a fairly straightforward thing – especially if you’ve been through several biopsies and watched your PSA go up while it took months for the doctors to find the cancer that you suspected was in there.

But it may not be that straightforward. Here are a couple of things you need to understand about the prostate: It is a perplexing mix of different kinds of cells. It is the jambalaya of the pathology world.

Also, the biopsy – taking samples of tissue with a hollow-core needle for the pathologist to study under the microscope only provides an imperfect look at what’s inside the prostate. Imagine you are trying to see inside a locked house, and you can only look through a dozen peepholes, a few on each wall. It sounds like the setup for a bad riddle, but that’s pretty much what the biopsy is like. If the only way to try to locate cancer is through tiny holes, the odds of missing it at any given time are fairly high.

Biopsy is better now than it used to be: Not too long ago, doctors used to take just samples from the prostate; then they started taking six. Now they take 12, which sounds like a lot, although actually it’s not that much more. “These are tiny pieces of tissue,” says Johns Hopkins urologic pathologist Angelo M. De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D. “Each needle sample takes 1/3,000 the weight of the prostate.” Twelve cores of tissue are 12/3,000 of the prostate, “and that is not a very good sampling, unless you have a very large tumor.”

What this means is that if your biopsy says you have “atypical cells,” that doesn’t mean you don’t also have cancer. If you have Gleason 3 + 3 cancer, that doesn’t mean you don’t also have some Gleason 3 + 4 cancer. If you have high-grade PIN, that doesn’t mean you don’t also have cancer.

It’s like “Let’s Make a Deal,” except there are many doors, and you don’t know what’s behind them. To sum up, the biopsy is the best guess, based on really small windows of insight.

Improving visibility: The good news is that there are many efforts to take out some of the guesswork.

The field is definitely changing,” says De Marzo. “Things are moving fast in every single realm of prostate cancer diagnosis.

New blood and urine tests can help determine if you have cancer, and if that cancer might be aggressive. Imaging is getting better, too. More men are getting prostate MRI, which can help show cancer – and can highlight suspicious areas for the urologist to target with the biopsy. is not widely available. Multi-parametric MRI looks at the prostate in four basic ways; each kind of imaging tells its own version of the story, and added together they give a more complete picture.

“Multi-parametric MRI requires a lot of expertise, and it has a learning curve,” says De Marzo. “Because the level of expertise varies, you should get this done at a center “that has a lot of experience with this type of imaging.” He adds, “I have great hope that as the field evolves, we will find a lot more and miss a lot fewer.”

 

Terms to know from this article:

Biopsy

The removal of cells or tissues for examination under a microscope. When only a sample of tissue is removed, the procedure is called an incisional biopsy or core biopsy. When an entire lump or suspicious area is removed, the procedure is called an excisional biopsy. When a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle, the procedure is called a needle biopsy or fine-needle aspiration.

Pathologist

A doctor who identifies diseases by studying cells and tissues under a microscope.

Gleason

Gleason Score (GS) - Gleason Grade: A system of grading prostate cancer cells based on how they look under a microscope. Gleason scores range from 2 to 10 and indicate how likely it is that a tumor will spread. A low Gleason score means the cancer cells are similar to normal prostate cells and are less likely to spread; a high Gleason score means the cancer cells are very different from normal and are more likely to spread.

urologist

A doctor who has special training in diagnosing and treating diseases of the urinary organs in females and the urinary and reproductive organs in males.

PSA

prostate-specific antigen (PSA): A substance produced by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, or infection or inflammation of the prostate.

Tumor

A mass of excess tissue that results from abnormal cell division. Tumors perform no useful body function. They may be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Grade

The grade of a tumor depends on how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread. Grading systems are different for each type of cancer.

Janet Farrar Worthington is an award-winning science writer and has written and edited numerous health publications and contributed to several other medical books.

In addition to writing on medicine, Janet also writes about her family, her former life on a farm in Virginia, her desire to own more chickens, and whichever dog is eyeing the dinner dish.