Prostate cancer has now become Britain’s most prevalent form of male cancer. In 2007, some 36,100 men were diagnosed with the condition.
Whether you are young, physically fit and working offshore, or in an older age group working in an office, finding out about your prostate and the problems that can arise should be one of your health priorities.
Let’s start with some basic information about the prostate gland. It is approximately the size of a walnut and is located in front of the rectum and below the bladder.
The prostate produces a fluid that carries sperm that has been produced by the testicles – the result of this fluid and the sperm coming together is semen.
There are three main types of prostate problems: benign prostatic enlargement, prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) and prostate cancer.
Benign prostatic enlargement
As men grow older, the prostate can become enlarged which causes symptoms such as urinary frequency. In some cases, however, the prostate may have grown bigger and will be pressing on the urethra (the tube that urine passes through), making it hard to pass urine. There could be a weaker stream and it can become difficult to empty the bladder. This enlargement is common in men over 50, and is not a form of cancer.
Prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate)
Another condition affecting the prostate is prostatitis, which is inflammation of the prostate gland. It can affect men of any age but is more common in men aged 30-50.
Prostatitis can cause pain in the lower back and in the perineum area, and may cause fever. It can be caused by unprotected sexual intercourse and sexually-transmitted diseases. Usually treatment will be a course of antibiotics.
The number of men being diagnosed with cancer of the prostate gland has increased in recent years. It is thought that this may be due to the fact that there are more older men in the population, and that more men are having tests which can detect prostate cancer.
The causes of prostate cancer are not fully known. However, there are some factors that are known to increase the possibility of a man developing the disease:
As a man gets older, particularly after 50, his risk of developing prostate cancer increases.
It is considered that a man is more likely to develop this type of cancer if he has close relatives such as a father, brother or uncle who have had prostate cancer. A family history of breast cancer may also increase the risk.
In the UK there is a higher rate of diagnosis of prostate cancer amongst black African and Caribbean men.
Diet is also thought to play a part, and it has been noticed that levels of prostate cancer are higher amongst countries where high-fat diets are consumed.
Prostate problems can cause similar symptoms. These may include:
A weak or reduced urine flow
Needing to urinate more often, especially at night
A feeling that your bladder has not emptied properly
Difficulty starting to pass urine
Needing to rush to the toilet – occasionally you may experience urine leakage before you can reach the toilet.
Less common symptoms include:
Pain when passing urine
Pain when ejaculating
Pain in the testicles
Chills and fever if infection is present.
If you have any of these symptoms, you should visit your GP to find out what is causing the problem. If you are feeling anxious or worried about taking this step, then initially you could talk over your concerns with the HSE-approved medic on your installation or vessel. They will be able to tell you more about the tests you may require and confirm that you should seek further medical advice.
The common tests for prostate problems include:
Blood Test – PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) level
A physical examination called a DRE (Digital Rectal Examination)
Flow of urine test, called uroflowmetry
Ultrasound scan to check how well you empty your bladder.
You may help lower your risk of developing prostate cancer by eating a healthy, balanced low-fat diet which is rich in vegetables, fruit and fish.
It is now thought that Vitamin D can be beneficial for prostate problems. Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, eggs, liver and fortified foods, like breakfast cereal. The best source of Vitamin D is from exposing our skin to sunlight. This may be problematic for men working offshore in the North Sea where sunny days can be scarce, so vitamin D supplements can help, but you should seek medical advice before taking them. Giving up smoking and being physically active are also recommended.
It’s always a good idea to get to know your body and its functions. Observe changes that take place in your body and, if you have concerns, seek medical advice. It may not prove to be a serious problem, but most medical conditions can be treated more effectively if you seek advice early so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.
Dr Louise Smith is a medical officer at occupational health specialist Abermed