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What You Need To Know

Prostate Cancer Backgrounder: What You Need to Know

Male Reproductive SystemYour partner has had some tests and has been told he has prostate cancer. He has probably seen a urologist, who will guide his care from now on. As with any serious condition, prostate cancer affects more than just the person who has been diagnosed. Family, friends and work colleagues may be affected too, especially if surgery, radiation or major lifestyle changes are required. With prostate cancer, there may be particular challenges for the spouse. That’s why it’s important for you to know as much as you can about what lies ahead.

The prostate is a golf-ball sized gland located near a man’s bladder. Its job is to produce part of the semen that provides nutrients and protection to sperm. The prostate surrounds the urethra, which is the tube used by urine and semen to exit the body through the penis. This area also contains nerves that are involved in a man’s erection, but the prostate itself is not involved in erection function.

Is There Any Good News?

When a man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer it means that some of the cells within the gland are growing and dividing at an abnormal rate. Their structure is not normal. They also have the capability of escaping the prostate and invading other parts of the body. Prostate cancers can be slow growing or fast growing and aggressive with a high risk of spreading to other parts of the body. Fortunately, the slow-growing type is most common.

What Type Is It?

If your partner has the slow-growing type, you have lots of time to decide which treatment— and there are several—will be best. But how do you know which type he has?

Your partner’s doctor will likely use a number of tools to determine whether the cancer is growing slowly or is the more aggressive, fast-growing kind.

The Tests

The PSA test

The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test looks at the level of PSA in the blood. This level tends to rise as men get older and does not mean that cancer is present. Other tests are done if levels are above normal in order to confirm the existence of cancer. However, rapidly rising levels (measured as PSA dou- bling time) may mean that cancer is not only present but is growing quickly.

Digital rectal exam (DRE)

The digital rectal exam, where the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the man’s rectum to feel for hard areas and irregular shapes in the prostate, can often determine the size of the tumour, which can indicate how dangerous the tumour may be.


The PSA test and DRE have limitations when it comes to diagnosing prostate cancer and indicating its severity, so other tests are usually required. A biopsy, where small pieces of prostate tissue are removed for examination, is the most common test for confirming the existence of cancer and for determining if it is the slow-growing or aggressive kind. While there are other tests that can be done, these three are the most common and will often be carried out multiple times.

“I wanted to go with my partner to his appointments. Not only did it help him to have me there, but I also learned a lot about what he was going through. That really helped us both as we began thinking about which treatment we would consider.”

Yes, You Can Help!

The tests may create some anxiety in your partner. Even if you already have good communication between you, he may not be able to tell you what’s worrying him. Can you help? Here are some things that may be useful to remem- ber when your partner is undergoing testing:

  • The DRE and biopsy are “invasive,” meaning that something is entering the body. Many men have never experienced this (except maybe at the dentist’s office) and are extremely uncomfortable at the thought of it, especially because the “entrance” is through the rectum. As a woman, you have no doubt experienced “invasive” tests such as Pap smears and DREs many times and can assure your partner that, while the tests may be uncomfortable, they are carried out by professional, caring experts.
  • Offer to accompany your partner to the appointment. If you drive, this is the time to volunteer, especially on the way home. After a biopsy, it’s best if your partner does not drive for several hours.
  • Do NOT ask to be in the examining room during the test unless your partner insists.

“My partner is a very private person and doesn’t believe in sharing his health problems with strangers. Every individual has to handle the situation in whatever manner works best for them.”

Did you know . . .

  • Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in Canadian men (after non-melanoma skin cancer).
  • About one in seven men in Canada will develop prostate cancer in their lifetime.
  • In 2010, 24,600 men in Canada were diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • Risk factors include age (being older than 65), a family history of the disease and having African ancestry. There is research investigating other possible risk factors such as exposure to cadmium and consumption of red meat.
(Source: Canadian Cancer Society)