While no one can guarantee whether you will or will not develop prostate cancer, knowing your risk factors helps you and your healthcare team make the best decisions regarding when to begin prostate cancer screening.
Risk Factors for Prostate Cancer
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing cancer. However, risk factors don’t cause cancer — you might have several risk factors and never develop cancer. It’s important to know if you have risk factors so you can begin screening to detect cancer at its earliest stage when it can be more effectively treated.
Some risk factors are things that you can’t control or change. But knowing that these put you at greater risk means that you can be proactive and get screened regularly.
Age. Men over 50 are at higher risk for prostate cancer. Over 80% of prostate cancer is diagnosed in men over the age of 65.
Race. Black men in the United States and men of African descent are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than other men.
Family history. Sometimes, prostate cancer “runs” in a family — this is called familial prostate cancer and accounts for about 20% of diagnoses. About 15% of familial prostate cancer may happen because of a shared environment or lifestyle. An example of a shared environment is men who grow up together in a family with a high-fat diet, large amounts of red meat and dairy, and low vegetable/fruit consumption would have a shared, increased risk for prostate cancer. Another example is male relatives who grow up in an extreme northern location and suffer low Vitamin D levels, increasing their prostate cancer risk.
Hereditary prostate cancer, caused by a genetic mutation passed on through the family, is responsible for about 5% of all prostate cancer cases. If you have a first-degree relative (father, son, or brother) with prostate cancer, you have a 2-to-3 times higher risk than average. Other family situations suggestive of hereditary prostate cancer include:
- 3 or more first-degree relatives with prostate cancer
- 3 generations of prostate cancer on the same side of the family
- 2 or more close relatives (including grandfathers, uncles, or nephews on the same side of the family) diagnosed with prostate cancer before the age of 55
Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome. Linked to family history is a chance that a man may have female relatives who had breast or ovarian cancer, or possibly both. Men who have female relatives that test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (BRCA is an abbreviation for Breast Cancer) may have inherited that gene too. Male relatives of these women should consider genetic counseling because men who have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are at increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer and male breast cancer.
Where you live. Men living in North America and northern Europe are at increased risk, including Asian men who live in these regions. Prostate cancer rates increase for Asian men who live in Singapore, Hong Kong, and European and North American cities — especially if they have a less active lifestyle and eat a less healthful diet.
Agent Orange exposure. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese immigrants exposed to Agent Orange are at increased risk of prostate cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). To learn more about your risk, visit the VA website.
These risk factors are uncontrollable and unavoidable. You can’t change the circumstances of your birth, your relatives, or your military service. Nor can you easily relocate to another region.
Do Lifestyle Factors Increase the Risk for Prostate Cancer?
Increasing evidence suggests that your lifestyle plays a role in your prostate cancer risk (and other cancers too). Avoiding the following things is helpful to not only lower your risk of prostate cancer but of other cancers and diseases.
- Eating a diet that is high in saturated fats, particularly from red meats (beef, pork, and lamb)
- Becoming overweight
- Smoking and use of other tobacco products — smoking increases the risk of dying from prostate cancer
Prostate Cancer Screening Recommendations
Talk to your doctor about your personal history and family history to determine what screening recommendation is best for you. The American Cancer Society recommends:
- Age 50 for men at average risk
- Age 45 for men at high risk — including African-Americans and men with a first-degree relative diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65
- Age 40 for men at the highest risk – men who have more than one first-degree relative with prostate cancer at a younger age
Ways to Lower Your Risk of Developing Prostate Cancer
While there is no ironclad way to ensure that you won’t get prostate cancer, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Many of these suggestions may help reduce the chance of developing other cancers too.
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, and legumes (peas and beans). Eat whole grains instead of white bread and white pasta. Cooked tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower), and soy-based foods seem especially helpful.
- Replace some red meats in your diet with chicken and fish, especially fish with good fats like salmon.
- Get more active. Begin exercising and try to lose weight if you’re overweight. Walking is an easy way to become active.
- Stop smoking. Consider using a smoking cessation program or “buddy” up with a friend so that you both can quit smoking.
- Medication. Research shows that medications used to treat BPH, also known as prostate gland enlargement, may help reduce your risk for prostate cancer. Talk to your doctor about finasteride and dutasteride (both available by prescriptions) to determine if one of these medications may be right for you.
- Avoid excessive calcium. Don’t take more than 1,200 mg per day.
- Consider Vitamin D. Men who live north of 40 degrees latitude (north of Philadelphia, Columbus, OH, the Nebraska/Kansas border, and Boulder, CO) experience the highest death rate from prostate cancer. This adverse effect appears to be caused by decreased sunlight during the winter months. Ask your doctor if taking Vitamin D is appropriate for you.