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Cancer Awareness and Prevention

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Explaining prostate cancer exams

Every three minutes a man is diagnosed with prostate cancer. In fact, the disease is so common that one in nine men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. Fortunately, men have lots of tools at their disposal, including prostate cancer screenings, that can help them find prostate cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.

The discussion surrounding prostate cancer screenings has changed in recent years. Whereas such screenings were once recommended for all men once they reached a certain age, the American Cancer Society now advises men to gather as much information as they can, including speaking with their physicians about the uncertainties and risks as well as the potential benefits of screenings, before making their decisions on their own.

There are two types of prostate exams that men can discuss with their physicians. The Prostate Cancer Foundation recommends men begin these discussions around the time they turn 50, or earlier for men with a family history of prostate cancer.

• DRE: During a digital rectal exam, or DRE, a doctor will lubricate a gloved finger and insert it into a patient's rectum. The prostate is just in front of the rectum, and the DRE will let a doctor know if the prostate is enlarged or in irregular shape. Many men find the DRE uncomfortable, but the exam is brief and should not be painful.

• PSA test: The PSA test is a blood test that measures the level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, in the blood. PSA is a protein that's naturally produced by the prostate. Rising PSA levels are often one of the first signs of prostate cancer. However, the PCF notes that abnormally high PSA levels are not necessarily indicative of prostate cancer. So in order to fully evaluate the results of a PSA test, doctors will consider a patient's age, the size of his prostate, previous PSA test results, and the patient's medical history, including past and current medication use.

If test results show an irregularity or indicate an enlarged prostate, doctors may recommend repeating the tests after an interval of time. That's because an enlarged prostate is not always indicative of prostate cancer, and sometimes it may just be symptomatic of a temporary condition that goes away before the next exam. If there are no causes for concern after an exam, doctors may advise repeating the tests at regular intervals of one to two years.

There are risks associated with prostate cancer screenings, and men should discuss these risks with their physicians and their families. More information is available at www.pcf.org.

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