Don’t believe everything you hear, especially when it comes to a topic as serious as cancer. “Common knowledge” is not necessarily accurate, and the internet is full of every kind of information: valid, invalid, and conflicting.
Here, we address five common myths about prostate cancer and separate the misconceptions from the facts, with explanations backed by evidence and scientific research.
Myth 1: I should wait until I notice symptoms to get screened for prostate cancer.
Reality: Many people who have prostate cancer show no symptoms, especially if the cancer is in an early phase. Most early-stage prostate cancer is found through screening. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “screening” as “looking for cancer before it causes symptoms.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Screening tests can help find cancer at an early stage, before symptoms appear. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat or cure. By the time symptoms appear, the cancer may have grown and spread. This can make the cancer harder to treat or cure.”
Starting at age 40, a patient should discuss prostate cancer screening options with their doctor.
Myth 2: A diagnosis of prostate cancer means I need chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.
Reality: Low-grade prostate cancer may not need to be treated right away, or may never need to be treated. For low-grade cancers, patients and their healthcare practitioners can consider active surveillance or watchful waiting instead of immediate treatment.
If a patient’s cancer is low grade, slow growing, and contained within the prostate, and the patient is not experiencing any symptoms, the provider may opt to regularly monitor the cancer instead of immediately treating it — an approach called “active surveillance.” In these cases, a patient will get regular tests, which might include PSA tests, digital rectal exams (DREs), or prostate biopsies to monitor changes, undergoing treatment only if test results show the cancer is worsening or if they start developing symptoms. More than half of men diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer choose active surveillance.
If a patient has slow-growing, localized prostate cancer that is unlikely to lead to symptoms in a patient’s lifetime, or if they cannot tolerate screening and treatments, “watchful waiting” is an option. This is where patients self-monitor and contact their healthcare provider to discuss treatment only if and when symptoms develop.
Myth 3: Prostate cancer is only a concern for older men.
Reality: Although most cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed in people older than 65, younger people can get the disease, too. People of African descent, and those who have one or more first-degree relatives who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer—particularly before age 65—are at an increased risk.
At age 40, a patient should start discussing prostate cancer screening options with their doctor. Because prostate cancer can be effectively treated if spotted early, regular preventive screening is one of the most effective measures you can take.
Myth 4: A high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) result means that I have prostate cancer.
Reality: PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland. Doctors use PSA levels to determine if there is a problem with the prostate. Three of four men with an elevated PSA do not have clinically significant prostate cancer. PSA levels can be high for many reasons other than prostate cancer, such as recent sexual activity, vigorous exercise, a prostate infection, or an enlarged prostate (which often occurs with age and is noncancerous). More specific testing can help determine the cause of your elevated PSA result.
Myth 5: Prostate cancer is not treatable or curable.
Reality: The survival rate for prostate cancer can be 100 percent if it is diagnosed early and contained within the prostate.
According to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, “more than 80% of all prostate cancers are detected when the cancer is confined to the prostate or the region around it, and treatment success rates are high compared with many other types of cancer.”
Being able to separate the common misconceptions from the facts about prostate cancer screening, risk factors, diagnosis, and survival rates can make an overwhelming topic more manageable and better prepare you to have important discussions with your doctor or loved ones. The best ways to get the facts about prostate cancer are to talk directly to your doctor or specialist, or refer to credible online sources such as the National Cancer Institute. The American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Cancer.net has also published a list of tips on how to evaluate the credibility of online cancer information.