Prostate cancer: signs and symptoms of condition, treatment, how to get a test - and survival rates explained

Prostate cancer usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs for many years

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK, and the disease has come back into the headlines following the sad death of Bill Turnbull.

The former BBC Breakfast presenter died at home in Suffolk aged 66 on Wednesday after being diagnosed with the disease in November 2017.

Since then, Turnbull campaigned to raise awareness among those at risk as an ambassador for Prostate Cancer UK, which works to improve awareness and provides training and funding.

The charity’s chief executive Laura Kerby said that the journalist and broadcaster “leaves a resounding impact”.

Bill Turnbull did a lot of work to promote awareness of prostate cancer before his death at the age of 66 (Images: PA / Adobe)

She said: “Thousands and thousands of men have come forward as a result of him helping us raise awareness of Prostate Cancer UK – and him just telling his story.

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“He has saved lives – 11,500 men die in the UK every year of prostate cancer and he would have helped some people come earlier (for testing) so that they could have avoided that.

“One in eight men are affected, one in four black men, and he has made a huge impact in reaching into those communities, as a man telling his story, being brave.

“We will be forever grateful for everything that he’s done to help men find out about their prostate cancer risk, and everything he’s done for us at Prostate Cancer UK.”

But what are the symptoms of prostate cancer, when should you see a GP, what are the tests for the condition and what are the treatment options?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the symptoms of prostate cancer?

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Prostate cancer usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs for many years.

Symptoms of prostate cancer do not usually appear until the prostate is large enough to affect the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the penis (urethra).

When this happens, you may notice symptoms including:

  • an increased need to pee
  • straining while you pee
  • a feeling that your bladder has not fully emptied

These symptoms should not be ignored, but they do not necessarily mean you have prostate cancer.

It’s more likely they’re caused by something else, such as prostate enlargement.

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When should I see a GP?

If you have symptoms that could be caused by prostate cancer, you should visit a GP.

The GP is likely to:

  • ask for a urine sample to check for infection
  • take a blood sample to test your level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) – called PSA testing
  • examine your prostate by inserting a gloved finger into your bottom – called digital rectal examination

The GP will also assess your risk of having prostate cancer based on a number of factors, including your PSA levels and the results of your prostate examination, as well as your age, family history and ethnic group.

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What are the tests for prostate cancer?

There’s no single test for prostate cancer, but the most commonly used tests for prostate cancer are:

  • blood tests
  • a physical examination of your prostate (known as a digital rectal examination, or DRE)
  • an MRI scan
  • a biopsy

What is the PSA blood test?

The blood test, called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, measures the level of PSA and may help detect early prostate cancer.

Men over 50 can ask for a PSA test from a GP, but they are not routinely offered PSA tests to screen for prostate cancer, as results can be unreliable.

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This is because the PSA blood test is not specific to prostate cancer. Your PSA level can also be raised by other, non-cancerous conditions.

Raised PSA levels also cannot tell a doctor whether a man has life-threatening prostate cancer or not, but if you have a raised PSA level, you may be offered an MRI scan of the prostate to help doctors decide if you need further tests and treatment.

How is prostate cancer treated?

For many men with prostate cancer, treatment is not immediately necessary.

This is because if the cancer is at an early stage and not causing symptoms, your doctor may suggest either "watchful waiting" or "active surveillance", the NHS notes.

The best option depends on your age and overall health, with both options involving carefully monitoring your condition.

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According to Cancer Research UK, 96.6% of males survive prostate cancer for at least one year, with this falling to 86.6% surviving for five years or more, as shown by age-standardised net survival for patients diagnosed with prostate cancer during 2013-2017 in England.

Some cases of prostate cancer can also be cured if treated in the early stages.

Treatments for prostate cancer include:

  • surgically removing the prostate
  • radiotherapy – either on its own or alongside hormone therapy

Some cases are only diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer has spread. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and cannot be cured, treatment is then focused on prolonging life and relieving symptoms.