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What is the prostate and how do conditions like BPH differ from cancer? What men should know about their health

The walnut-sized organ might be a bit of a mystery for some people, so here's what you should know about it.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Urology, treatment of men's diseases and prostatitis. Consultation of a male urologist for a patient with prostatitis. Anatomical model of male reproductive system, close-up
Urology, treatment of men's diseases and prostatitis. Consultation of a male urologist for a patient with prostatitis. Anatomical model of male reproductive system, close-up

For many men, the prostate is often something that remains a mystery when it comes to their health.

Between the organ's purpose and location in the body, to when you should seek help for problems or how to determine what issue you might have, the prostate can be confusing. Luckily, there's a swath of information to help you learn more about the gland, and many celebrities and high-profile figures are helping spread awareness of possible prostate issues.

In late January, King Charles underwent surgery to treat his enlarged prostate, after being diagnosed with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). A source from the palace noted King Charles "was keen to share the details of his diagnosis to encourage other men who may be experiencing symptoms to get checked, in line with public health advice," according to NBC News. However, further testing identified cancer elsewhere in King Charles's body.

Other well-known figures have also opened up about their prostate problems, including stars like Eric Braden, Rod Stewart and Ben Stiller who have gotten candid about prostate cancer over the past several years.

Dr. Danny Vesprini, a radiation oncologist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, told Yahoo Canada in 2022 that while the prostate isn't large (about the size of a walnut), its nature and location "certainly causes lots of problems."

By the year 2040, annual prostate cancer cases worldwide are expected to double, with annual deaths projected to rise by 85 per cent. Read on to learn more about the prostate, its common issues and how you might be able to prevent discomfort.

King Charles prostate
King Charles underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate earlier this year, before announcing he had cancer elsewhere in his body. (REUTERS/Hollie Adams/)

What is the prostate?

The prostate is a small, rubbery gland that produces enzymes and proteins in the body. It's part of the reproductive system and it's located deep inside the groin, between the base of the penis and the rectum.

"The main goal of the prostate is that it produces between 60 to 80 per cent of a man's ejaculate and, in particular, creates an enzyme called prostate specific antigen, or PSA," Vesprini explained. "What that enzyme does is liquify the coagulum in the vagina to help with reproduction. So it allows sperm to swim more freely in the vagina."

While it's an important organ for procreation, it's not one that's necessary for life, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.


What are some common prostate problems?

According to Vesprini, the most common problem most men experience is that the prostate continues growing. While it might be the size of a walnut or ping pong ball in younger men, it typically starts to grow when men reach their late 40s and early 50s, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

"It's one of the few parts of the body that still grows as we get old. And as men get older, they start to have more difficulties with urinating. That's why older men get up to pee at night because they aren't emptying their bladder sufficiently during the day," he noted, adding men can experience a slower flow of their urine and may "start to spray a bit."

Although these symptoms aren't serious medical issues, Vespirini suggested they can impact a man's confidence and quality of life.

"As we get older and the prostate gets bigger, the bladder may not empty fully and the flow starts to slow down, which is annoying but it's common and there's lots of remedies," Vesprini added.

The Canadian Cancer Society also indicated the prostate is also close to the digestive and reproductive systems, meaning problems with the organ can impact those parts of the body, too.

Male genitourinary system diseases concept - asian happy elderly man is peeing smoothly at restroom
Male genitourinary system diseases concept - asian happy elderly man is peeing smoothly at restroom

What is prostatitis and BPH?

In addition to common urinary problems, serious conditions such as prostatitis and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) can also affect the prostate.

Prostatitis is the inflammation of the prostate that can cause symptoms like painful urination and general discomfort in the groin, pelvis or genitals. According to

"It can be very uncomfortable and disruptive by causing pain or sexual dysfunction," Vesprini shared.

On the other hand, BPH, or an overly enlarged prostate, usually affects men over age 40. As it grows, the prostate can block the flow of urine and cause bladder, urinary tract or kidney problems.

"Signs of BPH are difficulty urinating, a weak stream, or having a frequent need to urinate," explained Vesprini.

Drinking less fluids in the evening can help ease BPH symptoms. (Photo via Getty Images)
Drinking less fluids in the evening can help ease BPH symptoms. (Photo via Getty Images)

How does BPH differ from prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is another serious issue related to the organ. It's a disease where malignant cells form in the tissues of the prostate. While there are many overlapping symptoms between BPH and prostate cancer, they are two separate conditions, and BPH will not develop into cancer. Below are some of the symptoms between the two conditions:


Prostate cancer symptoms

BPH symptoms

• Problems urinating

• Trouble starting a urinary stream

• Slow or weak urinary stream

• Urinating frequently

• Needing to urinate more often

• Feeling like the bladder isn't fully empty

• Blood in the urine or semen

• Strong or sudden urge to go

• Difficulty getting an erection

• Pushing or straining to begin urinating

• Pain in the hips, back or chest

• Difficulty getting an erection

• Weakness or numbness in the legs or feet

• Difficulty ejaculating

• Loss of bladder or bowel control

• Blood in the urine


According to Advanced Urology, the main symptom that distinguishes prostate cancer from BPH is pain in the hips and back. Typically, that's a result of cancer spreading or pushing on the spinal cord, which isn't experienced by BPH patients. Instead, BPH usually has more symptoms related to urination, since the enlarged prostate impacts the urinary system.

Still, it's best to see a health-care professional if you're experiencing theses symptoms, as it's best to catch cancer early.

Remedies for prostate issues

If you're hoping to alleviate symptoms for non-cancerous conditions like BPH, the most common thing to do is to change your daily habits.

"Stop drinking in the evening or don't drink lots of fluid before bed, which lessens the amount of times you're urinating at night," Vesprini suggested.

If that doesn't provide relief, there are medications that help the bladder empty more sufficiently, or medications that shrink the prostate over time.

"For more serious cases, there are surgical procedures that can be done, but it has risks," Vesprini added.

For prostatitis, the oncologist said anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or Advil can sometimes help, or using antibiotics may settle things down.

"Some men find that different foods or certain activities also trigger symptoms and thus they avoid those, but that's unique to each person and you'll have to go through a trial and error process to figure it out," he explained.

an older man outside running in a red shirt with headphones in
Everyone should work towards having a healthy heart, eating well, and exercising frequently. (Photo via Getty Images)

Can I prevent prostate issues?

"You can't really prevent prostate problems, and something like BPH is just a natural evolution," Vesprini said. "The only way to prevent it from happening is to have no testosterone, which is what triggers the prostate to grow over time."

He added since urinary problems and BPH are normal parts of aging, it's abnormal for a man in his 70s or 80s to not have experienced any of these problems. In general, the doctor said in order to be your best self, you should work towards having a healthy heart, having a good diet and exercising frequently.

"It's very important to keep on top of your overall health, and don't turn to quick fixes," Vesprini concluded. "Be aware of any changes in your body, and get screened if you suspect any issues."

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