Prostate cancer is a common type of cancer among men, and it’s estimated that 1 in every 8 men will get this cancer at some point in their lives. It’s also one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in some countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In Singapore, 1,846 new prostate cancer cases were reported in 2020, or about 15.1 per cent of all the new cancer cases among males in the country. The good news is that this type of cancer is quite treatable when it is diagnosed early. This is typically done through a prostate exam.
Unfortunately, compared to women, men are far less likely to go to their doctors for a check-up. According to the Australian Longitudinal Study on Male Health published in 2016, about 61 per cent of men have not participated in regular health check-ups. This reluctance to see their medical practitioners even for serious health concerns is costing men the chance to detect serious health issues as soon as possible and prevent them from getting worse. It’s also being looked at as one of the factors why women, in general, tend to live longer than men.
Part of this reluctance may be due to the uncertainty of what will occur during a prostate exam. If you, yourself, have been thinking of getting a check-up but feel nervous about the procedure, don’t worry. In this article, we’ll tell you what you need to know about it, including what the exam is like and how to prepare for it.
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What Is a Prostate Exam and Who Should Go for It?
The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland that secretes major components of seminal fluid. It is found just below the urethra and in front of the rectum. Examining this gland requires inserting a gloved finger into the rectum and assessing the prostate gland’s edges and surface for possible anomalies. A blood test called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) exam is typically done alongside a digital rectal exam to detect the presence of prostate problems.
Early-stage prostate cancer often does not present any symptoms, which is why it’s important for men to go for a prostate exam. Men are recommended to have their first prostate exam by the age of 50. If they have a family history of prostate cancer, though, the recommended age for the first exam is 45. After the first screening, the exam should be repeated every 3 to 5 years.
What Should You Expect During a Prostate Exam?
It’s not unusual for patients to feel intimidated, scared, or embarrassed when going in for their first prostate exam, but rest assured that this is a routine exam for medical practitioners. It’s perfectly fine to voice your concerns to your doctor so that they can adequately address any questions you may have about the procedure or the condition that you are being screened for. Before the digital rectal exam, a blood sample will be taken from you to assess the level of your PSA.
Upon being guided to the examination area, you will be asked to assume one of these positions: either lie on your side and hug your knees to your chest or bend at the waist while standing. Then, the doctor will gently insert a lubricated and gloved finger into your rectum. During this process, one of the doctor’s hands will be pressed on the prostate, while the other will be placed in the pelvic area. This can be an uncomfortable situation, but it’s usually not painful, and it only lasts a few moments.
The doctor will feel whether or not the back portion of your prostate—the part where many cancers start growing—has lumps or bumps. After the digital rectal exam, the doctor can tell you if your prostate’s shape and size are normal or if it’s enlarged or inflamed. A PSA, on the other hand, will reveal if you have a prostate infection.
How Can You Prepare Yourself for a Prostate Exam?
It takes little to prepare yourself for a prostate exam. There’s no need to change your bowel habits before you’re due for the said exam. You can defecate before your appointment if you feel like doing so, and the exam itself will not increase your urge to move your bowels.
However, you might need to abstain from sexual activity 48 hours before in preparation for the accompanying PSA exam, as ejaculation can temporarily increase PSA levels. If you have haemorrhoids, anal fissures, or anal tearing, it’s a good idea to mention this to your doctor beforehand so steps can be taken to make the procedure as comfortable for you as possible.
If everything checks out, then you only need to remember to come back for a follow-up prostate exam in the next 3 to 5 years. If the doctor detects anomalies in the digital rectal exam or if your PSA levels are abnormally high, however, you may be recommended to undergo further evaluation.
Prostate cancer is easy to treat before it spreads. In fact, about 99 per cent of all men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer will survive for more than 5 years after their initial diagnosis. Early detection and treatment are key to this. If you’re at risk for prostate cancer, then, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about it and schedule an appointment to get your prostate checked. And if you have any concerns about the prostate exam, your doctor will gladly walk you through the process to help you feel more confident about undergoing this important and necessary evaluation.