You may have heard people talk about the female prostate gland. But women don’t actually have a prostate gland. Instead, the female “prostate” is often used to refer to small glands on the front side of the vagina and corresponding ducts sometimes called “Skene’s glands” or “Skene’s ducts.” They are named after Alexander Skene, who described these structures in detail in the late 1800s. Researchers are now discovering ways they are like a man’s prostate, so the name “female prostate” has become more popular.
One of the similarities is related to the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and PSA phosphatase (PSAP). PSA and PSAP are present in both the male prostate and the Skene’s glands. It’s not clear whether the female “prostate” glands drain only into small ducts on each side of the urethra or the urethra itself. The urethra is the tube that carries urine outside of the body. In either case, the female prostate gland is considered a functional part of a woman’s genital and urinary system.
So, if the female prostate gland shares similarities with the male prostate gland, does that mean women can develop prostate cancer?
Cancer of the female prostate is rare. One older study estimates that cancer of the Skene’s glands accounts for 0.003 percent of cancers in the female genital-urinary tract. It’s also possible that cancer of nearby organs, like the urethra, can originate in the Skene’s glands.
In one case, painless long-term blood in the urine prompted a woman to seek medical attention. The cancer in her prostate gland was treated with radiation and her symptoms cleared. Surgery also may be used to treat cancer of the Skene’s glands, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has spread.
Cancer of the female prostate is rare. That can make it difficult for researchers to study because there is a limited number of cases. Instead, researchers have done studies in animals that have similar structures to human females. These studies provide evidence on how the female prostate works and how it may respond to cancer treatments.
Estradiol and progesterone are two important hormones that regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. They are also key enzymes in the prostates in female gerbils. These findings suggest a similar relationship might exist in a woman’s reproductive system.
Cancerous and noncancerous lesions are also more likely to appear in the female prostates of older gerbils than in the prostates of younger female gerbils. This suggests that age may be a risk factor for cancer in the Skene’s glands in female humans.
Progesterone may also be a risk factor for lesions in the Skene’s glands. A history of pregnancy, which affects progesterone levels, seems to also contribute to an increased number of lesions. In studies in gerbils, progesterone appears to play a role in the development of lesions.
Because this type of cancer is rare, there aren’t a lot of case studies. That means recognizing symptoms of this type of cancer may be difficult.
If you experience bleeding out of your urethra, you should see a doctor. That may be a symptom of cancer of the Skene’s glands. Or it’s more likely a symptom of another issue with your urethra. The bleeding may not be accompanied by any pain, and it may happen on and off over a period of time.
It’s always best to see a doctor if you notice any abnormal symptoms, especially if they recur. Early diagnosis can help improve your outlook for most conditions. You should see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, which could indicate other conditions:
- painful or frequent urination, or if it’s difficult to pass urine
- blood in your urine, or passing blood from your urethra
- painful sexual intercourse
- feeling of pressure behind the pubic bones
- abnormal menstrual cycle, or sudden changes to your menstrual cycle
There are conditions other than cancer that may be related to the Skene’s glands, and which may cause noticeable symptoms.
Prostatitis is a condition that causes swelling of the prostate gland in men. In women, female prostatitis has been diagnosed as an infection of the urethra, but may actually be an infection of the Skene’s glands. In the past this has been diagnosed as infection of the urethra. Doctors are increasingly aware that the female prostate can be a separate site of infection that should be treated separately.
Symptoms of infection of the Skene’s glands may include:
- pressure behind the pubic bones
- frequent, painful, or difficult urination
Untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can also spread to the female prostate. Some STIs, like gonorrhea, often don’t have any noticeable symptoms and may be more likely to spread to other areas of the female genitalia.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
In women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), reproductive hormones are out of balance. There’s also usually an excess of male hormones. The size of the female prostate appears to be larger in women who have PCOS.
Researchers have also noted that levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) are higher in women with PCOS. PSA is a hormone produced by the Skene’s glands. PSA levels may be a way to diagnosis PCOS.
Cysts can appear on the Skene’s glands in women of all ages, including newborn babies. Uncomplicated cysts can be drained and will heal with no further treatment.
An adenofibroma is a noncancerous growth. It’s mainly found on fibrous and glandular tissue. In a case report of an adenofibroma of the female prostate, the tumor caused pain during sexual intercourse. Surgery to remove the tumor relieved the pain.
In recent years, MRI has helped to clarify the appearance and function of the female prostate. More research is needed, but researchers are starting to get a better understanding of these glands.
In men, the prostate gland is suspected of being able to store infection in the body. That fact makes researchers wonder whether the Skene’s glands serve a similar function. How that might work in men or women is important to know as doctors try to find how infection works in people who are HIV-positive, for example.
Researchers also are interested that the female prostate produces PSA. The presence of PSA is one of the indicators of prostate cancer in men. It also shows up in women who have certain types of breast cancer. It may be that the role of PSA in both men and women is more complicated than we understand.
Elevated PSA levels before treatment for cancer of the Skene’s glands, and declining levels after, were found in cases where people received radiation or surgery. This pattern of high and low levels of PSA is so typical of cancer treatment that doctors are advised to check PSA levels during treatment.
Like the male prostate, the Skene’s glands, sometimes called the female prostate, produce the hormone PSA. These glands are also believed to have a role in the regulation of the reproductive system in both men and women.
Some researchers believe the female prostate has a role in sexual arousal, but that theory is controversial. Cancer and other conditions that affect the female prostate are rare. It’s possible that the reported cases of these conditions will grow as research and new technology expand understanding of the female prostate.