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Coping With Prostate Problems

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“When I was 54 years old, I started to urinate frequently, sometimes every 30 minutes. This symptom led me to consult a doctor, and I discovered that I would need to have my prostate removed.” Similar stories are common in prostate clinics around the world. What can a man do to prevent prostate diseases? When should he seek medical advice?

THE PROSTATE is a walnut-shaped gland that is located below the bladder and surrounds the urethra. (See the illustration of the male pelvis.) In a normal adult man, it weighs two thirds of an ounce [20 g] and measures, at most, 1.6 inches [4 cm] along its transverse axis, 1.2 inches [3 cm] along its vertical axis, and 0.8 inches [2 cm] along its horizontal axis. Its function is to produce a fluid that makes up approximately 30 percent of the volume of semen. This fluid, containing citric acid, calcium, and enzymes, probably improves sperm motility (ability to swim) and fertility. Moreover, the fluid secreted from the prostate includes zinc, which scientists theorize protects against genital-tract infections.

Recognizing a Sick Prostate

A number of pelvic symptoms in men are related to inflammatory or tumorous prostate disease. Prostatitis—inflammation of the prostate—can cause fever, uncomfortable urination, and sacral or bladder pain. When the prostate is very swollen, it can prevent the patient from urinating. If inflammation is caused by bacteria, the disease is called bacterial prostatitis, and it can be acute or chronic. It is usually associated with urinary tract infection. However, in a greater number of cases, the cause of the inflammation is not detected, and for that reason the disease is called nonbacterial prostatitis.

Common prostate problems are an increase in urinary frequency, urination during the night, a decrease in force of the urinary stream, and the sensation that the bladder is not completely empty. These symptoms usually indicate benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)—noncancerous prostate enlargement—which can affect men over 40 years of age. The incidence of BPH increases with age. It is present in 25 percent of men aged 55 and in 50 percent aged 75.

The prostate can also be attacked by malignant tumors. Generally, prostate cancer is discovered in a routine examination, even when there are no prostate symptoms. In more advanced cases, there can be urinary retention with swelling of the bladder. When cancer has spread to other organs, there may be backache, neurological symptoms, and swelling in the legs because of obstruction of the lymphatic system. In a recent year, the United States alone reported about 300,000 new cases of prostate cancer and 41,000 deaths caused by it. Scientists believe that 30 percent of men between the ages of 60 and 69 and 67 percent of men between 80 and 89 will develop prostate cancer.

Who Is More Likely to Develop It?

Research reveals that the chances of developing prostate cancer increase rapidly after age 50. In the United States, this cancer is about twice as common among black men as among white men. The incidence of this disease varies around the world, being high in North America and European countries, intermediate in South America, and low in Asia. This suggests that environmental or dietary differences may be important in prostate cancer growth. If a man immigrates to a country with greater incidence, his personal risk can increase.

Men with relatives affected by prostate cancer have a greater probability of developing it. “Having a father or brother with prostate cancer doubles a man’s risk of developing this disease,” explains the American Cancer Society. Some risk factors are age, race, nationality, family history, diet, and physical inactivity. Men who have a diet rich in fat and who are sedentary increase their chances of developing the cancer.

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