Diagnosing Prostate Cancer

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Testing healthy men with no symptoms for prostate cancer is controversial. There is some disagreement among medical organizations whether the benefits of testing outweigh the potential risks.

Most medical organizations encourage men in their 50s to discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening with their doctors. The discussion should include a review of your risk factors and your preferences about screening.

You might consider starting the discussions sooner if you’re a Black person, have a family history of prostate cancer or have other risk factors.

Prostate screening tests might include:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE). During a DRE, your doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into your rectum to examine your prostate, which is adjacent to the rectum. If your doctor finds any abnormalities in the texture, shape or size of the gland, you may need further tests.
  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. A blood sample is drawn from a vein in your arm and analyzed for PSA, a substance that’s naturally produced by your prostate gland. It’s normal for a small amount of PSA to be in your bloodstream. However, if a higher than usual level is found, it may indicate prostate infection, inflammation, enlargement or cancer.

Diagnosing prostate cancer

If prostate cancer screening detects an abnormality, your doctor may recommend further tests to determine whether you have prostate cancer, such as:

  • Ultrasound. During a transrectal ultrasound, a small probe, about the size and shape of a cigar, is inserted into your rectum. The probe uses sound waves to create a picture of your prostate gland.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In some situations, your doctor may recommend an MRI scan of the prostate to create a more detailed picture. MRI images may help your doctor plan a procedure to remove prostate tissue samples.
  • Collecting a sample of prostate tissue. To determine whether there are cancer cells in the prostate, your doctor may recommend a procedure to collect a sample of cells from your prostate (prostate biopsy). Prostate biopsy is often done using a thin needle that’s inserted into the prostate to collect tissue. The tissue sample is analyzed in a lab to determine whether cancer cells are present.

Determining whether prostate cancer is aggressive

When a biopsy confirms the presence of cancer, the next step is to determine the level of aggressiveness (grade) of the cancer cells. A doctor in a lab examines a sample of your cancer cells to determine how much cancer cells differ from the healthy cells. A higher grade indicates a more aggressive cancer that is more likely to spread quickly.

Techniques used to determine the aggressiveness of the cancer include:

  • Gleason score. The most common scale used to evaluate the grade of prostate cancer cells is called a Gleason score. Gleason scoring combines two numbers and can range from 2 (nonaggressive cancer) to 10 (very aggressive cancer), though the lower part of the range isn’t used as often.

    Most Gleason scores used to assess prostate biopsy samples range from 6 to 10. A score of 6 indicates a low-grade prostate cancer. A score of 7 indicates a medium-grade prostate cancer. Scores from 8 to 10 indicate high-grade cancers.

  • Genomic testing. Genomic testing analyzes your prostate cancer cells to determine which gene mutations are present. This type of test can give you more information about your prognosis. But it’s not clear who might benefit most from this information, so the tests aren’t widely used. Genomic tests aren’t necessary for every person with prostate cancer, but they might provide more information for making treatment decisions in certain situations.

Determining whether the cancer has spread

Once a prostate cancer diagnosis has been made, your doctor works to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. If your doctor suspects your cancer may have spread beyond your prostate, one or more of the following imaging tests may be recommended:

  • Bone scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Not every person should have every test. Your doctor will help determine which tests are best for your individual situation.

Your doctor uses the information from these tests to assign your cancer a stage. Prostate cancer stages are indicated by Roman numerals ranging from I to IV. The lowest stages indicate the cancer is confined to the prostate. By stage IV, the cancer has grown beyond the prostate and may have spread to other areas of the body.

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