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What Should I Know About the Digital Rectal Exam?

A digital rectal exam (DRE) is a test to identify changes in the prostate. It is an exam that can help with early detection of prostate cancer. A doctor can also observe any changes to the end of the large intestine (rectum or anus) with a DRE.1,2

How is a DRE done?

During a DRE, a doctor will insert a gloved and lubricated finger into the rectum through the anus. The doctor will then assess the size of the prostate and check for any changes or unusual bumps on the prostate.1,2

The exam can be done in 2 possible positions. You can stand and bend at the waist. You can also lie on the exam table with your knees to your chest.1,2

When do I need a DRE?

Unless you have other risk factors, DRE exams begin around age 50. Typically, a DRE occurs as part of an annual wellness check. If you have a family history of prostate cancer, your doctor may recommend a DRE starting at age 40. You may also receive a DRE if you have:1,2

  • Blood or discharge in your urine or stool
  • Accidental leakage of urine (urinary incontinence)
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • A change in bowel habits

Community shares

We asked the ProstateCancer.net community: "Have you gone through a digital rectal exam?" Many shared their experiences with the DRE procedure for early detection of prostate problems.

Frequent exams

Every responder had experienced a DRE at some point. Most have DREs regularly to monitor prostate health.

"Several times! No big deal!!"

"Every year since I was 40. Not now, though. Prostate is gone. No more of those finger waves!"

"Yearly from primary care, plus one today as part of my colonoscopy."

"I was very nervous the first time, but now a few times in, while not pleasant, it does not concern me unduly. It’s good to have the OK verdict. Has been done by both doctor and nurse practitioner."

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DRE as a lifesaver

Many respondents shared that a DRE started their prostate cancer journey. The DRE led to diagnosis and treatment.

"It was a DRE that combined with a slight rise in my PSA that started me on my prostate cancer journey."

"My last DRE was last June. I had gone to a urologist for symptoms of BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). He said the prostate felt abnormal. I had a biopsy, 10/12 positive samples. Had robotic prostatectomy and just finished 25 days of radiation."

"While my PSA went up a little, the digital exam saved my life."

"It is 20 seconds of discomfort that might save your life."

"It wasn't pleasant, but it saved my life (prostatectomy)."

DRE as part of prostate cancer diagnosis

The DRE is often a first step to detecting prostate cancer. When a doctor feels abnormalities during a DRE, further testing is done. Sometimes, even when the DRE results seem okay, further testing can reveal a problem. Always push for additional testing if something feels off.

"I had a DRE just prior to my biopsy, which revealed advanced aggressive prostate cancer."

"I had a gastroenterologist, urologist, and a radiation oncologist all perform a DRE on me. Not one ever felt any abnormalities. A 12-needle prostate biopsy confirmed that I had stage llC prostate cancer."

Continuing with DRE after prostatectomy

The community had mixed responses about continuing the DRE after a prostatectomy. Some responders continue receiving a DRE yearly, while others do not.

“Not needing 'the finger wave' is one of the silver linings after a radical prostatectomy!"

"No DRE since my proton radiation treatments."

“Yearly DRE by my primary care doctor since age 50. PSA trended on the chart until robotic prostatectomy. No DRE since."

"Yes, but I don't understand why they are doing the DRE after my prostatectomy."

"Yep, I had a DRE last Tuesday. My GP said all felt good. I'm a 6-year prostate cancer survivor/thriver."

Thank you

Thanks to those who shared their experiences with DREs. Have thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The ProstateCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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