About prostate cancer

What is the prostate gland?

The prostate gland is found only in men. It is a small gland about the size of a walnut. It sits at the base of the bladder and in front of the rectum (back passage). The tube that drains urine from the bladder (urethra) runs down through the centre of the prostate gland, letting urine flow out of the body through the penis. 

The prostate makes a thick white fluid that mixes with sperm to make semen. It also makes a protein called PSA or prostate specific antigen.  

The PSA protein turns semen into liquid. Some of this protein can pass into the bloodstream. When doctors check the prostate gland, they often measure levels of this protein in your blood. This is called the PSA test.

If your PSA level is higher than normal, it can sometimes be a sign of prostate cancer. However it can also be a sign of a less serious condition.

The prostate gland can get bigger with age, and may press on the urethra (the tube that drains the bladder); sometimes this causes problems passing urine, otherwise known as prostate urinary symptoms.

What are prostate urinary symptoms? 

Problems passing urine is a common complaint for men as they grow older. Symptoms may include some or all of the following:

  • A slow flow of urine.

  • Trouble starting or stopping the flow.

  • Passing urine more often, especially at night.

  • Pain when passing urine.

  • Blood in the urine or semen.

  • Feeling of not emptying your bladder fully.

These symptoms may be caused by prostate cancer or they may be caused by other conditions, such as a harmless (benign) growth of the prostate gland called benign prostatic hyperplasia. 

It is also important to understand that  early prostate cancer  may not cause urinary symptoms, or any symptoms at all. It is not safe for you to assume that because you have no prostate urinary symptoms that you do not have prostate cancer. Visit your doctor if you are worried.

For more information on the symptoms and diagnosis of prostate cancer, please see our booklet Understanding the PSA test.

What is prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer happens when the normal cells in the prostate gland change and grow to form a mass of cells called a tumour. These cancer cells can affect how the prostate works.

Prostate cancer cells may not grow at all or else grow slowly during a man’s lifetime. Many men never develop problems or symptoms from their prostate cancer. In some, prostate cancer grows more quickly and needs treatment to prevent it spreading outside of the prostate gland.

In most cases prostate cancer can be cured or kept under control.

Prostate cancer most often occurs in men in their fifties and onwards. It can occur on rare occasions in men in their late forties. The risk of developing prostate cancer rises with age.

Early prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is most often diagnosed in the early stages, before it has begun to spread beyond the prostate gland.

Early prostate cancer is also called localised prostate cancer. This means it is confined to the prostate gland only. It has not spread outside of the prostate gland. Often it is so small it cannot be felt by the doctor on examination of your back passage and it may have no symptoms. Your doctor may suspect prostate cancer after doing a PSA blood test.

There are several treatment options available to treat early prostate cancer. Most of these treatments aim to cure the cancer. Sometimes a doctor may suggest having no treatment straight away. Instead he or she will monitor the cancer regularly to see if treatment becomes necessary. This is called active surveillance.

For more information, see our section on Treatments for Early Prostate Cancer.

See the booklet Understanding Prostate Cancer for more information about treatment choices in early prostate cancer. Reading the booklet may help guide you in making decisions that feel right for you. 

Locally advanced prostate cancer

Locally advanced prostate cancer is where the prostate cancer has spread through the outer shell of the prostate gland and into the surrounding tissues but has not yet spread to other parts of the body.

Treatment options will depend upon how far the prostate cancer has spread.  The treatment may be aimed at getting rid of your cancer or aimed at keeping your cancer under control. 

For more information, see our section on Treatments For Locally Advanced Prostate Cancer or you can read more in our booklet Understanding prostate cancer.

Advanced Prostate Cancer (Metastatic)

Advanced prostate cancer means the prostate cancer has spread beyond the prostate gland and surrounding tissue and has spread through the blood stream or lymph nodes (lymph glands) to other areas of the body like the bones or in rarer cases the lung, brain or liver. This is also called metastatic prostate cancer or secondary prostate cancer. 

Advanced or metastatic prostate cancer can also happen in a small number of men who have been treated for localised prostate cancer and whose prostate cancer has now recurred (come back). 

If you are diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer you may be offered treatment options which help to keep your prostate cancer under control for many months and often years.

If you would like further information please see our section on Treatments For Advanced Prostate Cancer (Metastatic), or you can read more in our booklet Understanding advanced (metastatic) prostate cancer.

You can contact the Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to speak with a specialist cancer nurse if you have any questions or concerns, or if you would like to request a copy of  either Understanding Prostate Cancer to be posted to you.

How common is prostate cancer in Ireland?

In Ireland, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men, after skin cancer. Each year over 3,300 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer here. This means that 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.

Although there are many men with this disease, most men do not die from it. 

What are other common prostate problems?

Benign prostatic hyperplasia 

Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is when the prostate gland grows larger. BPH is common in middle aged and elderly men. BPH is not cancerous but it may cause prostate urinary symptoms. The treatment for BPH depends on  the prostate urinary symptoms causing you trouble and if there is any obstruction (blockage) caused by your enlarged prostate gland. 


Prostatitis means that the prostate gland has become inflamed. It can be caused by an infection in the prostate gland. It is often treated with antibiotics. It is not a form of prostate cancer. It can occur at any age but is more common in men aged between 30-50 years. Symptoms of prostatitis can include testicular discomfort, pain when passing urine or an uncomfortable feeling when sitting down.

Next: Symptoms and diagnosis of prostate cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Monday, January 21, 2019