It differs from most other cancers in the body, in that small areas of cancer within the prostate are very common and may stay dormant (inactive) for many years.
It's thought that about half (50%) of all men over 50 may have cancer cells in their prostate, and 8 out of 10 (80%) men over 80 have a small area of prostate cancer. Most of these cancers grow very slowly and so, particularly in elderly men, are unlikely to cause any problems.
In a small proportion of men, prostate cancer can grow more quickly and in some cases may spread to other parts of the body, particularly the bones.
Symptoms of prostate cancer
Cancer of the prostate is often slow-growing and symptoms may not occur for many years.
Men with early prostate cancer are unlikely to have any symptoms, as these only occur when the cancer is large enough to put pressure on the urethra (the tube that drains urine from the bladder). In men over the age of 50, the prostate gland often gets larger due to a non-cancerous condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia or hypertrophy (BPH).
The symptoms of both benign enlargement of the prostate gland and malignant tumours (cancer) are similar and can include any of the following:
- difficulty passing urine
- passing urine more frequently than usual, especially at night
- pain when passing urine
- blood in the urine (this is not common).
If you have any of these symptoms it's important to get them checked by your doctor. But remember, most enlargements of the prostate are not cancer.
Symptoms of advanced prostate cancer
The symptoms of advanced prostate cancer may include those that are due to an enlarged prostate gland (as above), or those that are due to secondary cancers elsewhere in the body.
The symptoms due to secondary cancers will depend on where in the body the secondary cancers are. However, there are a few general symptoms which some men have, including being more tired than usual, feeling generally unwell and having less of an appetite.
Secondary cancer in the bones
The first sign of a secondary cancer in the bones| is usually a nagging ache in the affected bone. This can become painful, making it difficult to sleep at night or to move around without taking painkillers.
The pain is generally there day and night and is different from other types of pain like arthritis, which is often worse early in the morning and not there all the time.
A secondary cancer in the bone may gradually make the bone weaker. Pain and weakness can make getting around difficult, and a bone that is very weak may break (fracture) more easily.
If the bones in the spine are affected, this can sometimes lead to weakness and tingling or numbness in the legs. This is due to the cancer causing pressure on the spinal cord and is known asmalignant spinal cord compression (MSCC). It's important to let your doctor know immediately if you have these symptoms. We can send you a fact sheet with more information about malignant spinal cord compression.
When bones are affected by cancer cells, extra calcium may be released into the blood. A raised blood calcium level is called hypercalcaemia. This can cause symptoms such as tiredness, feeling sick (nausea), constipation, thirst, poor appetite and confusion.
Secondary cancer in the bone marrow
Sometimes prostate cancer can spread to the bone marrow. This is the spongy material found in the centre of our bones. It produces the different types of blood cells in the blood, which include:
- red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body
- white blood cells, which help fight infection
- platelets, which help the blood to clot and prevent bleeding.
If the bone marrow is unable to produce enough blood cells you may become anaemic, be more likely to get infections or to have bruising or bleeding.
Prostate cancer can occasionally affect other parts of the body such as the lungs, lymph nodes,brain or liver. If you notice any new symptoms that last for a couple of weeks or more, you should discuss them with your cancer specialist.
It's important to remember that any of the symptoms mentioned here can be caused by conditions other than cancer.
*Information provided by Macmillan cancer support