A Closer Look at Men’s Cancers

In the same way that some cancers only affect women, there are also cancer types that are specific to men. Here, we take a look at what they are, common symptoms and the risk factors that may predispose you to them.

Cancers that affect men only are found in the male reproductive system and genitals, and include:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Penile cancer (rare)

As with any cancers, men’s cancers occur when cells ‘mutate’ and grow in an uncontrolled way. Prostate and testicular cancers combined are estimated to be diagnosed in 16,833 men in Australia this year alone

Prostate cancer

The prostate is a gland located between the bladder and the penis, just in front of the rectum. It secretes fluid that nourishes and protects sperm.

Prostate cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in the prostate, multiplying in an uncontrolled way and sometimes spreading outside the prostate into other parts of the body.

Prostate cancer is generally a slow growing disease. Many men live with the disease for years without experiencing symptoms. However, symptoms of prostate cancer can include:

  • Frequent/sudden need to urinate
  • Difficulty/discomfort urinating
  • Blood in urine or semen
  • Pain in the lower back, upper thighs or hips.

If you’re experiencing symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have prostate cancer. However, it is important you talk to your doctor .

Risk factors that are strongly linked to developing prostate cancer include:

  • Age - your chance of developing prostate cancer increases with age. 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer by the age of 85.
  • Family history - If you have a close male relative with prostate cancer, you have a higher chance of developing the disease yourself. The more incidences of prostate cancer in your family, the higher your risk.

In 2020, it is estimated that 16,741 males will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in Australia, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men. 3,152 males are estimated to die from prostate cancer this year. 

Cure Cancer Alumni A/Prof. Jyotsna Batra is currently working in the field of prostate cancer research.

‘Diagnosis of prostate cancer is currently neither very easy, nor even reliable,’ says Jyotsna. ‘It involves either a blood test (PSA test – gives some false positives and some false negatives), digital rectal examination, which is no one’s favourite procedure, or, perhaps, surgical intervention. We need to do better’. 

We need tests that will detect the cancer early, tests that will discriminate the bad/aggressive cancers from the more slowly growing ones, treatment that is less invasive with less unwanted side effects & tailored to the disease type’

We know that prostate cancer has >40% genetic component, but there are suggestions that environmental factors, as well as genetic background may play a role in the development of this disease. Part of Jyotsna’s work involves comparing the genetic makeup of men with prostate cancer with those who do not have the disease. Tissue samples, blood samples and information on clinical progression of the disease have been collected and compared.

So far, more than 150 ‘risk loci’ (particular places on a gene) have been identified through studies of the genes of people with prostate cancer. This can explain why some men (up to 33% of the men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer) might have inherited a predisposition for prostate cancer.

As an immediate measure, it has been suggested that targeted screening for men known to have high risk because they have a number of these genetic variations, and less screening of men without them, could reduce the problem of overdiagnosis and lead to a better benefit-to-harm balance in screening for prostate cancer.

‘Prostate cancer awareness is a critical part of prostate cancer research,’ says Jyotsna.

Testicular cancer

The testicles (or testes) are two oval-shaped organs in the male reproductive system, contained in a sack of skin called the scrotum, which hangs outside the body in the pelvic area.

The testes are vital for the production and storage of sperm and also produce the hormone testosterone. This hormone is responsible for sex drive, fertility, and the development of muscle and bone mass.

Usually only one testicle is affected by testicular cancer, but in some cases the disease is found in both. The majority of testicular cancers start in ‘germ cells’, which are cells that develop into sperm.

These cancers are called germ cell tumours. There are two main types: 

  Seminoma tumours

  • Tend to develop more slowly than non-seminoma tumours
  • Usually occur between the ages of 25-45, but can occur in older people

Non-seminoma tumours

  • Tend to develop more quickly than seminoma cancers
  • More common in people in their late teens and early 20s

 Symptoms of testicular cancer can include:

  • A painless lump or swelling in either testicle.
  • Pain, discomfort, or numbness in a testicle or the scrotum
  • Change in the way a testicle feels
  • Dull ache in the lower abdomen or groin
  • Build up of fluid in the scrotum
  • Breast tenderness or growth.
  • Lower back pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or bloody phlegm

If you’re experiencing symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have testicular cancer. However, it is important you talk to your doctor .

The causes of testicular cancer are unknown, but certain risk factors may increase your chances of developing the disease:

  • Personal history - if you have previously had cancer in one testicle, you are more likely to develop cancer in the other testicle. 
  • Undescended testicles - if the testicles haven’t descended into the scrotum by birth, doctors may need to operate to bring them down. This reduces the risk of developing testicular cancer, although people born with undescended testicles are still more likely to develop the disease.
  • Family history - if you have a close male relative with testicular cancer, you have a higher chance of developing the disease yourself.
  • Infertility - having difficulty conceiving a baby can be associated with testicular cancer. Testicular cancer can cause changes in your testosterone levels as well as genetic damage to sperm cells.
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Congenital defects - some people are born with an abnormality of the penis called hypospadias, (causes the urethra to open on the underside of the penis, rather than at the end) and/or inguinal hernias. People with these conditions are at increased risk of developing testicular cancer.

In 2020, it is estimated that 928 males will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in Australia. 30 males are estimated to die from prostate cancer this year.

Penile Cancer

The penis is the male sex organ, and also acts as a conduit for urine to leave the body

Penile cancer is rare and affects the skin and tissues of the penis. It occurs when normally healthy cells in the penis become cancerous and begin to grow out of control. The cancer may eventually spread to other areas of the body.

Symptoms of penile cancer can include:

  • A lump, mass or ulcer on the penis, usually found on the head or foreskin of the penis.
  • Itching/burning on the penis
  • Discharge/bleeding
  • Changes in the colour or skin of the penis
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin

If you’re experiencing symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have penile cancer. However, it is important you talk to your doctor . Getting an early diagnosis and treatment is critical for increasing the chances of a positive outcome.

Certain risk factors may increase your chance of developing the disease:

  • Men who are uncircumcised
  • Age (penile cancer is more common in men over the age of 60)
  • Smoking
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Lack of access to good sanitation
  • Sexually transmitted infection (eg: HPV)

To ensure vital research into men’s cancers can continue, make a donation to Cure Cancer today: donate here

Cancer Australia AIHW

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