Prostate cancer is the most common form of male cancer in the United States, and more than 200,000 new cases are reported each year. The cancer, which starts in the prostate, a walnut-shaped gland located under the bladder and in front of the rectum, usually doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms until it has advanced.
There are different types of prostate cancer; some progress very slowly, requiring little treatment along with active surveillance, while others progress very quickly and require very aggressive treatment.
It’s not surprising then that, as many people have become more aware of the risks, men want to know what they can do now in order to prevent or at least reduce their chances of getting prostate cancer.
Experts don’t know for sure what causes prostate cancer, so it’s difficult to lay out a step-by-step prevention plan. When asked about the question of nutrition, lifestyle and prevention, oncologist Scott Eggener, MD, co-director of the Prostate Cancer Program at the University of Chicago Medicine, is blunt but realistic.
“There's no overwhelming evidence on lifestyle changes or dietary things you can do that are definitively proven to help your prostate,” he says. However, many of the habits some experts suggest for a healthy prostate pay off in other healthful ways, he says, so they can't hurt.
While there is no guaranteed strategy to prevent prostate cancer, there are some things you can do to help lower your risk, which are also beneficial to your overall health.
Tips for lowering your risk of prostate cancer
“There’s decent evidence that eating healthy and minimizing red meat is beneficial to lower risk,” Eggener says. Loading up your plate with certain vegetables — tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower — as well as eating beans and fish may help, too, according to the American Cancer Society.
In 2013, researchers at Harvard University reported that they have identified six healthy habits that seem to keep deadly prostate cancer away:
- Not smoking (or not smoking for the past 10 years);
- Maintaining a healthy body weight;
- Exercising three or more hours per week at a vigorous pace, or walking seven or more hours at a more moderate pace per week;
- Eating four or more servings of tomato sauce a week (for the lycopene);
- Eating two or more servings of fish and other nutrient-dense fatty fish oils per week; and
- Eating less than three servings of processed red meat (and other animal products) a week.
Based on more than 45,000 men, the study found those with at least four of the healthy habits slashed their risk of dying from prostate cancer by more than half.
Who is at increased risk for prostate cancer?
The most important prostate cancer risk factors are age, ethnicity, genetic factors and potentially some dietary factors. For now, here's what men (and their caregivers) should know about their risk.
- Age: Prostate cancer, like many other cancers, is more common with age. A clinical diagnosis of prostate cancer is rare before the age of 40. Most men are age 50 or older when diagnosed.
- Family history: Men with a family history of prostate cancer are at greater risk of developing prostate cancer. There is strong evidence that it can run in families, but the science is not yet very advanced when it comes to specific genes. Interestingly, having a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer gene increases a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer.
- Ethnicity/race: African American men have a higher risk for prostate cancer, and the age of onset tends to be earlier than in other groups.
- Obesity and other factors: It’s hard to tell from studies the extent to which obesity modifies the chances of developing prostate cancer, but a diet high in animal fat and low in vegetables may increase risk. There also may be a connection between obesity and aggressiveness of the cancer once it develops, so sustaining a leaner, healthy body weight seems best — for prostate health and beyond.
Should you or a loved one get screened?
There’s some debate within the medical community about whether (and how often) to screen for prostate cancer. There are two main types of prostate cancer screening tests: the widely used prostate-specific antigen test, or PSA test, and a digital rectal exam, which is usually done in addition to the PSA test. The PSA test looks for elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen, a protein made by the prostate, in the blood. The higher your PSA level, the more likely a prostate problem is present.
“PSA screening is the reason deaths from prostate cancer have gone down each year for the last 20 years,” Eggener says.
Some organizations recommend routine screening starting at about age 50, while others advise against it. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of health care experts that evaluates the latest scientific evidence on clinical preventive services, updated guidelines in 2013 and recommends against routine PSA testing. The benefit is outweighed by potential harm, such as treating a cancer that wouldn’t have grown enough to be a problem in a man's lifetime, it says.
Not everyone agrees, but many doctors now see at least a reduced role for PSA. Elevated levels don't always mean cancer, and a simple blood draw from the arm can allow doctors to check if a man’s PSA levels are normal. The American Cancer Society recommends men talk with their health care provider about whether or not to be screened for prostate cancer.
Eggener agrees. “In a man who is otherwise healthy and has at least eight to 10 years to live, it's reasonable to consider a PSA test,” he says. Your doctor may have a different opinion, so if you do have the test, know the pros and cons, he adds. “Getting a PSA has potential harms and can take you down a path to be treated for a cancer that wasn't going to cause problems [in the first place].”
Take the next steps
- Regardless of what the research shows or doesn’t show, talk to your doctor about your prostate cancer risk. With clear-cut information about your medical history, you and your doctor can better assess your risk.
- If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, explore your options and find a solution that works best in your individual case. Guidelines sometimes speak better to populations than to individuals.
- Finally, consider growing a moustache — or encouraging someone you know to do so — during the month of November. Really. A global movement to raise awareness and money for prostate and testicular cancer, Movember encourages men to grow moustache for the entire month of November. As the moustache grows, people notice and donate to the cause. In 2012 alone, “Movember” raised $147 million for prostate and testicular cancer. Growing a moustache may seem like a small thing, but it’s paying off big.