What is prostate cancer?

The prostate is a small gland located underneath the bladder in men and is part of the reproductive system. Some men develop prostate cancer, usually later in life. If cancer develops on your prostate gland, it will likely grow slowly. In rare cases, the cancer cells may be more aggressive, grow quickly, and spread to other areas of your body. The earlier your doctor finds and treats the tumor, the higher the chances are of finding curative treatment.

According to the Urology Care Foundation, prostate cancer is the second most common cause of all cancer-related deaths among American men. About 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. Approximately 1 in 39 men will die from it. Most of these deaths occur among older men.

Incidence of prostate cancer in the United States

Like all types of cancer, the exact cause of prostate cancer isn’t easy to determine. In many cases, multiple factors may be involved, including genetics and exposure to environmental toxins, like certain chemicals or radiation.

Ultimately, mutations in your DNA, or genetic material, lead to the growth of cancerous cells. These mutations cause cells in your prostate to start growing uncontrollably and abnormally. Abnormal or cancerous cells continue to grow and divide until a tumor develops. If you have an aggressive type of prostate cancer, the cells may metastasize, or leave the original tumor site and spread to other parts of your body.

Some risk factors may affect your chances of developing prostate cancer, including your:

  • family history
  • age
  • race
  • geographical location
  • diet

Read more: 9 tips to prevent prostate cancer »

Family history

In some cases, the mutations that lead to prostate cancer are inherited. If you have a family history of prostate cancer, you’re at increased risk of developing the disease yourself, because you may have inherited damaged DNA.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 5-10 percent of prostate cancer cases are caused by inherited mutations. It’s been linked to inherited mutations in several different genes, including:

  • RNASEL, formerly known as HPCI
  • BRCA1 and BRCA2, which have also been linked to breast and ovarian cancer in women
  • MSH2, MLH1, and other DNA mismatch repair genes
  • HOXB13


One of the biggest risk factors for prostate cancer is age. This disease rarely affects young men. The Prostate Cancer Foundation reports that only 1 in 10,000 men under the age of 40 in the United States will develop it. That number jumps to 1 in 38 for men between the ages of 40 and 59. It leaps to 1 in 14 men between the ages of 60 and 69. The majority of cases are diagnosed in men over 65.

AgeIncidence of prostate cancer
<401 in 10,000 men
40-591 in 38 men
60-691 in 14 men

Race and ethnicity

Although the reasons aren’t fully understood, race and ethnicity are risk factors for prostate cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in the United States, Asian-American and Latino men have the lowest incidences of prostate cancer. In contrast, African-American men are more likely to develop the disease than men of other races and ethnicities. They’re also more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and have a poor outcome. They’re twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as white men.


A diet that’s rich in red meat and high-fat dairy products may also be a risk factor for prostate cancer, though there’s limited research. One study published in 2010 looked at 101 cases of prostate cancer and found a correlation between a diet high in meat and high-fat dairy products and prostate cancer, but stressed the need for additional studies.

A more recent study from 2017 looked at the diet of 525 men newly diagnosed with prostate cancer and found an association between high-fat milk consumption and the progression of the cancer. This study suggests that high-fat milk consumption may also play a role in the development of prostate cancer.

Men who eat diets high in meat and high-fat dairy products also seem to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Experts don’t know if the high levels of animal fat or the low levels of fruits and vegetables contribute more to dietary risk factors. More research is needed.

Geographical location

Where you live can also impact your risk of developing prostate cancer. While Asian men living in America have a lower incidence of the disease than those of other races, Asian men living in Asia are even less likely to develop it. According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is more common in North America, the Caribbean, northwestern Europe, and Australia than it is in Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America. Environmental and cultural factors may play a role.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation notes that in the United States, men living north of 40 degrees latitude are at a higher risk of dying from prostate cancer than those living farther south. This may be explained by a reduction in the levels of sunlight, and therefore vitamin D, which men in northern climates receive. There’s some evidence that vitamin D deficiency may increase risk for prostate cancer.

Aggressive prostate cancers may be slightly different than slower-growing types of the disease. Certain risk factors have been linked to the development of more aggressive types of the condition. For example, your risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer may be higher if you:

  • smoke
  • are obese
  • have a sedentary lifestyle
  • consume high levels of calcium

Learn more: Understanding advanced prostate cancer »

Certain things that were once considered risk factors for prostate cancer are now believed to have no connection to the disease.

  • Your sexual activity doesn’t appear to have any impact on your chances of developing prostate cancer.
  • Having a vasectomy doesn’t appear to increase your risk.
  • There’s no known link between alcohol consumption and prostate cancer.

Although some cases of prostate cancer are aggressive, most are not. Most men diagnosed with this disease can expect a good outlook and many years of life ahead of them. The earlier your cancer is diagnosed, the better your outlook. Diagnosing and treating prostate cancer early can improve your chance of finding curative treatment. Even men who are diagnosed in later stages can benefit greatly from treatment. These benefits include reducing or eliminating symptoms, slowing further growth of the cancer, and prolonging life by many years.

Keep reading: The best prostate cancer blogs of the year »