If you’ve ever looked up the impact of testosterone online, you might have read this chilling statement: “Testosterone increases the severity and risk of prostate cancer”.
Is this true? And if it is, what does that mean for the safety claims of testosterone boosters?
Let’s analyze the history and modern understanding of this subject to get to the bottom of this!
Where is this idea coming from?
The connection between testosterone and prostate cancer dates back to the early 1940s with Dr. Charles B. Huggins.
Dr. Huggins and his students William Wallace Scott and Clarence V. Hodges published three papers in 1941. These papers explained the link between the endocrine system & the prostate gland and how testosterone fits into the equation.
The bottom line of their research was that blocking testosterone could be a possible cure for prostate cancer.
This conclusion was backed by a clinical test that involved 21 men with prostate cancer. These test subjects were either castrated to completely eliminate testosterone production or were administered estrogen supplementation to neutralize the testosterone present in their system.
The results of this T-blocking therapy were both quick and effective. Most patients showed a drastic cancer regression alongside clear pain reduction after just a few days or even hours of blocking testosterone production.
The impact of Dr. Huggins' findings
The effects of Dr. Huggins' discoveries regarding testosterone and prostate cancer were far-reaching. They’re best summarized by a 1965 report from Paul Talalay (director of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Johns Hopkins University).
He remarked, "Humanity owes Charles Huggins deep gratitude. Since cancer of the prostate constitutes one of the most common cancers of man, the untold benefits and relief of suffering which this treatment has brought to many older men can hardly be overemphasized."
After his initial discoveries in 1941, Dr. Huggins applied similar methodologies for breast cancer and published his findings in 1951. He showed that breast cancer also depends on androgen hormones like estrogen. They reached this conclusion by removing the adrenal glands and ovaries from cancer patients.
Dr. Charles B. Huggins later received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the world of medicine in 1966.
Effects on testosterone treatments
Following Dr. Huggins’ revelations, it became taboo to prescribe testosterone replacement therapy to any man with a history of prostate cancer. Doctors also feared that higher T levels would "awaken" dormant cancer cells. So, this sentiment held true even if the cancer was fully cured.
The US Food and Drugs Administration also mandated that every testosterone booster must state that it’s not suitable for former or current prostate cancer patients.
Are there any modern studies about this?
Yes, there are, and they challenge our previous understanding of the link between testosterone levels and prostate cancer.
A 2015 study by E. Michaud et al. showed how testosterone replacement therapy has little to no effect on the progression and spread of prostate cancer. New research also shows that testosterone replacement therapy has zero impact on the concentration of PSA; a protein that’s used as an indicator in prostate cancer diagnosis.
These results were further supported by a 2016 meta-analysis involving more than 26 testosterone replacement therapy trials. The conclusion of this analysis stated, “Prostate cancer appears to be unrelated to endogenous testosterone levels.” — contradicting the decades-old understanding of T levels and prostate cancer.
By far, the most comprehensive proof of this shifting paradigm is a 2017 study by the University of Oxford. It involved 20 prospective studies with ~19,000 men between the ages of 34 and 76.
The study divided its test subjects into ten groups based on their serum testosterone levels. Research on these groups showed that men with low testosterone were the least likely to develop prostate cancer. But it also showed that men with high T levels did not have a higher risk either.
What does this mean for testosterone boosters?
The relationship between testosterone boosters and prostate cancer is still in a gray area. There are studies that deem testosterone supplements safe for prostate cancer patients who have completed their cancer treatment.
A 2016 study by L. Kaplan et al. also suggests that testosterone boosters do not increase the risk of prostate cancer. It also shows how T supplements do not make the illness worse for men who are already diagnosed with this tumor.
When we consider the available evidence, it is still too early to label testosterone boosters as “completely safe” for men with a history of prostate cancer. More research is needed to reach a conclusive answer.
What factors impact the increased risk of prostate cancer?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common risk factors for prostate cancer are:
All men are at risk of developing prostate cancer, but this risk increases with your age. An article by Columbia University states that over 60% of prostate cancer cases are diagnosed in men over the age of 65.
African men have a 60% higher chance of developing prostate cancer at least once in their lifetime. They are at a higher risk of experiencing a more aggressive form of the disease and at a younger age compared to other ethnicities. This high risk and increased severity indicate that African men are also at a greater risk of fatality due to this illness.
Men have a drastically higher risk of developing prostate cancer if they have more than one first-degree family member with a history of prostate cancer. This includes their brothers, father, sons, and close relatives from their mother’s or father’s side.
Moreover, they might also have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer if a female relative has been diagnosed with ovarian, pancreatic, or breast cancer.
What do I do as prevention?
There’s not much you can do about the risk factor from your age, ethnicity, and genetics. But you can prevent this risk from increasing even further if you:
Avoid red meat
According to the World Health Organization, the risk of cancer increases by 17% if you consume 100 grams of red meat every day.
Control your Weight
After the initial discoveries by Dr. Charles B. Huggins in 1941, high testosterone was categorized as a catalyst that increases the risk and severity of prostate cancer.
But, as we’re learning from modern research, that is not exactly how the link between T levels and prostate cancer works. Low T decreases the risk of prostate cancer, but high T does not increase this risk either.
Though, it is important to note that there isn’t enough evidence to declare testosterone boosters as 100% safe for men with a history of prostate cancer.