Originally published in Boomers & Beyond, November 1, 2013
October was breast cancer month, and breast cancer news and information seemed to be everywhere. Although I am not a fan of standard accepted processes for detecting, diagnosing, and treating breast cancer, I am pleased that breast cancer receives a lot of attention.
But we can’t leave out the men. Men, too, have a significant and gender-specific risk of cancer: Prostate cancer.
This is a deeply personal topic for me. A good friend of my parents who helped raise me and mentored me throughout my life died from prostate cancer. In many ways, he was a “second father” to me. Several years before his death, he told me that had his cancer been caught early enough, if the screening tests had been more accurate, his cancer could have been completely treated. But it wasn’t.
Prostate cancer is quickly becoming a major concern for men, as more men become aware of how common this health problem is. In fact, second only to the men’s health screening, prostate screenings are the most common among our male clients.
Prostate Cancer is Common
Prostate cancer is generally considered an older man’s condition. The National Cancer Institutes estimates that in 2006–2010, 89.8% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer were aged 55 or older. And we are not talking about a small group of men.
After lung cancer, prostate cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among U.S. men, and it is the second most common cancer among men, following skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some time during their lifetime. The American Cancer Society estimates 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed. Although the mortality rate has dropped in recent decades, the National Cancer Institute estimates that this year, 238,590 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 29,720 will die.
Unfortunately, prostate cancer doesn’t receive the same attention, or the funding, as breast cancer, and the risk factors and causes of prostate cancer are less well-known.
Uncertain Causes and Symptoms
Although 5%–10% of prostate cancer results from DNA mutations in inherited genes (similar to breast cancer), research is unclear on the influence of lifestyle and health choices. For example, men who consume large quantities of red meat seem more prone to prostate cancer. The same group of men tends to eat less vegetables and fruits, and researchers don’t know whether eating more red meat or less fruits and vegetables increases the risk of prostate cancer.
Researchers have also looked for connections between prostate cancer and smoking, obesity, sexually transmitted infections, high levels of androgens (such as testosterone), and inflammation of the prostate, but any evidence is inconclusive or not confirmed by other studies. The University of Florida Health notes that incidences of prostate cancer may be higher among men who consume too much alcohol, farmers, tire plant workers, and painters, among others.
The only indisputable risk factors are 1) being a man, and 2) getting older.
Even the symptoms are not certain. Most symptoms of prostate cancer are also symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is an enlarged prostate and is common among all men as they age. BPH is not cancer and does not increase the risk of cancer.
Unfortunately, most symptoms associated with prostate cancer occur at a late stage, not early when the cancer is most easily treated and the survival rate is the highest.
The National Cancer Institute notes that “Compared with many other cancers, prostate cancer grows slowly. This means that it can take 10 to 30 years before a prostate tumor gets big enough to cause symptoms or for doctors to find it. Most men who have prostate cancer will die of something other than prostate cancer.”
Considering the number of men affected by prostate cancer, the uncertainty of risk factors, and confusion about symptoms, you would think that the medical field would have developed good tests for prostate cancer. You would be wrong.
Standard Tests for Prostate Cancer
The two most common tests are the PSA blood test, which looks for the level of prostate-specific antigen, and the “finger test,” a procedure in which a doctor inserts a finger through the anus and attempts to feel cancer within the prostate.
According to the American Cancer Society, “There is no PSA level that says for sure that prostate cancer is present.” BPH can raise PSA levels, and cancer may be present with low levels of PSA. Some pain medications may also raise PSA levels artificially.
The finger test is less accurate than the blood test. The test requires a subjective opinion, and the cancer must have grown large enough for a doctor to feel it, which is likely to be years after onset.
The American Cancer Society warns that “These tests [both the PSA blood test and the “finger test”] can sometimes have abnormal results even when a man does not have cancer (known as false positive results). Normal results can also occur even when a man does have cancer (known as false negative results).”
Nor can these tests tell whether the cancer is slow growing, in which case monitoring may be the best option, or fast growing, in which case treatment may be the best option. If all cancers are treated equally, many men will suffer the crippling side effects of treatments they did not need.
Thermal Imaging Screening
New and different tests are needed to screen for prostate cancer. No test will be conclusive because only a biopsy can confirm the presence of cancer. However, with the combined results of a variety of valid tests, men and their doctors can best determine whether cancer may be present and, if so, what treatments or follow-up tests are most appropriate.
And that is why I encourage men to include thermal imaging in tests for prostate cancer. Thermal imaging uses infrared technologies to detect prostate, and other, cancers by looking for the unique heat patterns they cause.
Unlike PSA and the palpation test, thermal imaging examines the physiological environment affecting the prostate that may lead to or indicate cancer, including intestinal, kidney, and lymph conditions. Understanding the physiological environment may lead to treatments or behavioral changes that deter the cancer from forming.
In a thermal imaging screening for prostate cancer, a clinician takes a series of infrared images that board certified reading doctors analyze for signs of the body’s response to cancer.
Reading doctors look for two main thermal markers that may suggest prostate cancer: distended lower intestine, which produces a “cool” region, and pressure on the lower bladder, which produces a “hot” region. Additionally, thermal images depict issues in the colon, lymph system, and kidneys that correlate to prostate cancer.
If the reading doctors identify signs of prostate cancer, they generally first recommend follow-up screening for comparison to determine whether there are signs of aggressive tissue behavior. They may also recommend confirmation by other tests.
With the combined evidence from a variety of tests, a patient and patient’s doctor can make the best decisions about ordering a biopsy and what treatments, if any, to use. Thermal imaging can also be used to monitor whether treatments are effective.
Better health information leads to better health decisions, making thermal imaging a key tool in any man’s arsenal against prostate cancer.