The latest headlines suggest that deaths from prostate cancer is overtaking breast cancer for the first time in UK history. We look at what prostate cancer is and whether there’s anything in our lifestyle we can do to swerve this male only disease.
If you’ve had your ears and eyes on the health press recently, you couldn’t help notice that breast cancer, the leading cause of all cancer deaths, is now being overtaken by prostate cancer. The reason behind this is largely due to longevity (men are living longer), so let’s look at prostate cancer and men’s health.
What is prostate cancer and will I get it?
Prostate cancer is one of the few diseases that can only affect a single sex. Women do not have prostate glands, and so this disease can only affect men.
The prostate gland is a walnut-sized gland that wraps itself around the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside world.
Its job is to make seminal fluid that enables the movement of sperm made in the testicles.
Unsurprisingly from the statement at the beginning of this article, prostate cancer is most common cancer affecting men.
It usually develops slowly, and affects around 1 in 8 men.
What to look out for
Men are notoriously bad for ignoring symptoms that could suggest something more serious. Whilst in most cases, the following symptoms will have a benign cause (typically an enlarged prostate) – don’t ignore them.
- needing to urinate more frequently, often during the night
- needing to rush to the toilet
- difficulty in starting to pee (hesitancy)
- straining or taking a long time while urinating
- weak flow
- feeling that your bladder has not emptied fully
Men put off going to the doctor because the examination is considered undignifying. But it’s a fact of life that, as many men get older they will have to go through this at some point. It’s very often just a case of when!
- You will usually have a blood test for PSA (prostate specific antigen). This won’t tell the doctor whether you have cancer or not, but is one of an armoury of indicators
- You will usually have to have a digital rectal examination (DRE). It’s uncomfortable, but it is quick. Your doctor needs to feel your prostate gland to see whether it’s smooth and normal feeling. This can only be done by inserting a finger into your butt
- If it doesn’t feel right, you may be asked to attend for an ultrasound scan
Prostate cancer caught early can often mean careful observation without surgery and without radiation therapy. That’s got to be worth a finger up your bum, right?
There is a tonne of information on the Prostate Cancer UK site should you want to find out more. Every man should learn about this disease, and the sooner, the better.
Most of the risk factors for prostate cancer are what we call non-modifiable. This means that no matter what you do, you can’t change it. Even male-to-female trans women cannot change their risk. It’s built into the genetic fabric of our birth gender.
- Fortunately, prostate cancer in young men is exceptionally rare. The moment you hit 50, the risk of getting this cancer starts to increase – the average age is mid to late 60s. The younger you get prostate cancer, the more dangerous it often is. So age is a risk factor.
- For reasons best known to nature, Afro-Caribbean men are more prone to this cancer than other races, and Asian men are the least prone. Therefore, ethnicity is a big risk factor.
- A family history of certain types of cancer can also increase the risk. For example, having a father or brother with prostate cancer increases our risk of getting it. If your have a mother or sister with a certain type of breast cancer, that too can affect our risk.
- Adult height may or may not influence risk. It’s possible that tall men may have a greater potential for cancers simply because they have more cells – and more cells means greater chance for things to go wrong. But this is by no means conclusive.
So non-modifiable risks are things we cannot change. But does this make cancer a given? Not necessarily. Science tells us that non-modifiable factors present the smallest risks, the biggest risks come from modifiable risk factors – risk factors we have total control over. But it doesn’t work if you just address one of them, you have to address all.
- Being overweight is a risk factor for many cancers. Prostate cancer could be one of them. If your height to weight ratio (called body mass index, or BMI) is over 25, then you should consider losing a bit of weight.
- Follow a healthy diet. We’ll look specifically at diet and types of food in a moment.
- Being active decreases risks of cancer. We know that people who follow a healthy diet and exercise more, tend to live longer and healthier lives generally. Doing exercise doesn’t mean joining a gym or a running club. It just means sitting less!
- Breaking a sweat is better though. Sitting less is only a start. It’s better than no exercise at all; you ideally want to aim for a regular exercise that makes you break into a sweat. So whatever makes you break a sweat, that’s great. A brisk walk perhaps, taking the stairs not the lift. Eventually, you have to do more to break a sweat as your fitness improves – and that could mean joining a running club. Small steps though!
Diet and Swerving the Risk
Modern medicine is now understanding that the one and biggest change that we can all do to improve our chances of avoiding any chronic disease is to change our lifestyle.
If you look at the non-modifiable risk factors and think, shit – I hit too many of these: I’m black, I’m middle-aged, I’m a bit heavy, my father had prostate cancer – then you need to think “so what can I do to swerve this?”
If you’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and you’re under an active surveillance scheme, then this also applies to you too.
1. Eat less meat
Are you an avid meat-eater? Does the thought of being vegetarian or even flexitarianism give you the fear?
Then what if I told you that cutting down on all forms of meat, and cutting out certain types of meat could reduce your chances of prostate cancer?
There are increasing studies now that suggest we eat too much meat. Eating less red meat and seriously cutting down on processed meat (such as cured, smoked, salted or dried) can improve our health in the long term.
Also, barbequing or cooking meat on flame-grills could also promote cancer-causing compounds in the meat.
This association with diet is so important that a large clinical study is being conducted in America that is following groups of men with prostate cancer and observing outcomes with dietary changes.
Specifically, this study is trialling a high vegetable diet on men already diagnosed with prostate cancer, but not yet treated. The aim is to prevent the need for treatment, but they will only know how effective this is if they compare it against men who eat as they normally would.
So what’s in this diet that could help prevent prostate cancer? Read on..
2. Eat more cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are mostly the green vegetables you’ll find in the supermarket. They’re important because they contain a plant compound called glucosinolates, which gives them their distinct bitter flavour and smell when being cooked.
Glucosinolates also contain sulphur, which is why these vegetables have a certain reputation for their ability to clear a room!
Cruciferous vegetables include:
- Rocket (arugula)
- Brussel sprouts
3. Eat more tomatoes
Tomatoes contain a red pigment called lycopene. Lycopene has been the subject of a lot of research recently, specifically with its role in preventing prostate cancer.
Lycopene is more powerful when the tomato has been cooked, and it also needs fat to get into the body. So cooking tomatoes with olive oil is a perfect way to ensure you maximise the amount of lycopene from the tomato and into your blood.
4. Eat less dairy produce
It was interesting to find that whole milk intake contributed to elevated cancer mortality risk significantly…but.. only limited to prostate cancer. Wu et al. (2016)
This is great news for men who dislike cheese, not such great news for the rest of us. There is some evidence that whole fat dairy produce might increase the risk of prostate cancer.
The reason for this isn’t just the fat, but the fact that calcium appears to influence cancer cell growth. And dairy is rich in calcium.
5. Consider including foods rich in selenium and zinc
Selenium is a mineral that belongs to a group of foods often considered to have strong antioxidant properties. This group includes vitamins A,C and E and the minerals selenium and zinc.
Of these, selenium and zinc and possibly vitamin E (although do not take vitamin E supplements) are important for prostate health. Whilst there is yet any scientific evidence to suggest that supplementing on either selenium or zinc will help prevent prostate cancer, choosing a diet that keeps both minerals at optimal levels is not damaging either.
In fact, some studies suggest that good levels of selenium in the blood does support a potential for reduction in risk, but there just isn’t enough research yet.
If you are under active surveillance for prostate cancer, or wish to avoid your chance of getting prostate cancer, you really should look at your lifestyle.
Consider following these simple guidelines:-
- 7 portions of vegetables and fruits (cooked or raw) every day, which should include:
- 2 portions of a cruciferous vegetable
- 2 portions of tomatoes
- 1 portion = 80g or ½ cup
- 1 portion of nuts and seeds every day, which should include:
- 1 or 2 brazil nuts
- 1 portion = 30g or just under ¼ cup
- Keep processed meat and red meat to special occasions, and don’t eat every day
- Don’t burn your meat; if you enjoy a barbeque during the summer, marinate the meat in dark beer first. If these are regular events, try and skip the meat from time to time
- Trial a flexitarian diet for 2 weeks, see how it goes. Stick to it if it felt like no effort at all
- Switch to low fat dairy, and keep to dairy guidelines such as 30g cheese per day
- Don’t be sedentary – get out and do stuff, enjoy the outdoors
Blue ribbon Men’s Health Network
Older black male by Leroy Skalstad
Burger by unknown photographer
Broccoli by unknown photographer
Tomatoes by Mix from Pexels
Brazil nuts by Gadini
Feature pic: father & son, unknown photographer
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.