What does the prostate do? Gland function explained, can you live without one, how to test for prostate cancer

In the UK, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men

Prostate problems can be common, particularly in men aged over 50.

But what does the prostate do and can you live without one?

In the UK, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men

Here’s everything you need to know.

What does the prostate do?

The prostate is a small gland found only in men and trans women, which surrounds the tube that carries urine out of the body (urethra).

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The prostate gland produces a thick, white fluid that gets mixed with sperm to create semen.

The gland is about the size and shape of a walnut but tends to get bigger as you get older.

It can sometimes become swollen or enlarged by conditions such as:

  • prostate enlargement
  • prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate)
  • prostate cancer

What are the symptoms of prostate cancer?

In the UK, prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men, with more than 45,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

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Although it’s not clear why it occurs, the chances of developing prostate cancer increase as you get older.

The condition mainly affects men over 65, although men over 50 are also at risk.

The risk of developing prostate cancer is also increased depending on your:

  • ethnic group – prostate cancer is more common among Black men than in White men, and is least common in Asian men
  • family history – having a brother or father who developed prostate cancer under the age of 60 seems to increase your risk of developing it. Having a close female relative who developed breast cancer may also increase your risk of prostate cancer

Early prostate cancer does not usually cause any symptoms and if the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on your urethra, the symptoms of prostate cancer can be difficult to distinguish from those of prostate enlargement.

They may include:

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  • needing to pee more frequently, often during the night
  • needing to rush to the toilet
  • difficulty in starting to pee (hesitancy)
  • straining or taking a long time while peeing
  • weak flow
  • feeling that your bladder has not fully emptied
  • blood in urine or blood in semen

You should see your GP if you have these symptoms.

What is the test for prostate cancer?

There’s no single, definitive test for prostate cancer, according to the NHS.

Your GP will discuss the pros and cons of the various tests with you to try to avoid unnecessary anxiety.

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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.

If you’re at risk, you should be referred to hospital in order to discuss the options of further tests.

Can you live without a prostate?

If you do have prostate cancer, you may not need treatment. If the cancer is at an early stage and not causing symptoms, your doctor may suggest either "watchful waiting" or "active surveillance".

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If you do need treatment, surgery is one of the main treatments for prostate cancer. You usually have surgery to remove your prostate gland, which is known as a radical prostatectomy.

According to Cancer Research, a radical prostatectomy is a major operation with some possible side effects.

However, you may not need this type of surgery if you’re an older man with a slow growing prostate cancer.

Cancer Research said this is because “your cancer might grow so slowly that you’re more likely to die of old age or other causes than from prostate cancer”.

You might have problems having an erection after a radical prostatectomy or you might produce less or no semen.