Prostate Cancer Screening: Care Instructions

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Location of prostate below bladder and next to rectum, showing urethra passing through prostate.


Prostate cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the prostate. The prostate is part of the male reproductive system. It is a small organ below the bladder that makes fluid for semen.

Screening can help find prostate cancer early. When it's found and treated early, the cancer may be cured. But it's not always treated. That's because the treatments can cause serious side effects. In most cases, prostate cancer isn't life-threatening. This is especially true in someone who is older and when the cancer grows slowly.

Prostate cancer is a common type of cancer. Most cases occur after age 65. The disease runs in families. And it's more common in African Americans.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

What is the screening test for prostate cancer?

The main screening test for prostate cancer is the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. This is a blood test that measures how much PSA is in your blood. A high level may mean that you have an enlarged prostate, an infection, or cancer.

Along with the PSA test, you may have a digital (finger) rectal exam. This exam checks for anything abnormal in your prostate. To do the exam, the doctor puts a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum.

If these tests suggest cancer, you may need a prostate biopsy to see if there are cancer cells in the prostate.

What are the pros and cons of screening?

Neither a PSA test nor a digital rectal exam can tell you for sure that you do or do not have cancer. But they can help you decide if you need more tests, such as a prostate biopsy. Screening tests may be useful because prostate cancer often doesn't cause symptoms. It can be hard to know if you have cancer until it's more advanced. And then it's harder to treat.

But having a PSA test can also cause harm. The test may show high levels of PSA that aren't caused by cancer. So you could have a prostate biopsy you didn't need. Or the PSA test might be normal when there is cancer, so a cancer might not be found early. The test can also find cancers that would never have caused a problem during your lifetime. So you might have treatment that wasn't needed.

Prostate cancer usually develops late in life and grows slowly. In most cases, it doesn't shorten lives.

Talk with your doctor to see if screening is right for you.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.