This Is What Really Happens When You Get A Prostate Exam

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), prostate cancer ranks only behind skin cancer as the most common type of cancer among men. The website also estimates that close to 250,000 men in the United States were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2021.

The experts at the Mayo Clinic describe the prostate as "a small walnut-shaped gland in males that produces the seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm." Unfortunately, early symptoms of prostate cancer are hard to detect — in fact, a person may have no early symptoms at all. If the disease is more advanced, you may have difficulty urinating, notice blood in your urine and/or semen, or experience erectile dysfunction, among other symptoms. Health experts are not yet certain what causes prostate cancer, but note that age, race, family history, and obesity appear to be risk factors.

More commonly found in older adults, 60% of prostate cancer diagnoses occur in males over the age of 65; prostate cancer is rarely seen in men under 40, per ASCO. While prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death among American men, 98% of people diagnosed with prostate cancer survive at least 10 years. There are tests available to determine if you have prostate cancer. Improved screening and treatment in recent decades have significantly reduced the death rate for this disease.

What doctors look for during a prostate exam

Before giving you a rectal examination, your doctor will first screen you for prostate cancer through a blood test called the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test. You can order a PSA test if you are already getting blood drawn to test for other issues. If the screening detects unusually high levels of PSA, this could be a sign of prostate cancer, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Ultimately, your doctor may advise a digital rectal exam. This involves your doctor gently inserting "a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum to examine the prostate for irregularities in size, shape, and texture" (per Prostate Cancer Foundation). While the test may be uncomfortable, it is typically painless and brief.

A prostate can become enlarged for various reasons unrelated to cancer, so if something unusual is detected during your screening or exam, your doctor will likely suggest either repeating these tests or performing other tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound, blood or urine test, or possibly a prostate biopsy. Whatever your health situation, if you are a male 45 years of age or older, experts advise that you undergo prostate cancer screenings. In fact, your doctor may suggest getting a routine prostate screening every one or two years as part of your annual checkup, depending on your circumstances.