Thursday, March 4, 2010

The truth about prostate cancer screening

Earlier this month, the American Cancer Society revised its recommendation for men regarding prostate cancer screening based on the latest research. Specifically ACS wanted men to ask their doctors about the limitations of PSA blood testing and digital rectal exams and their inability to improve survival.

Based on the National Cancer Institute's Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian screening trial and the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer, there was no evidence that screening with PSA made a difference in decreasing death from prostate cancer after a follow-up of seven years. While the European study showed a slight decrease in mortality with screening, this did not occur until about after nine years of follow-up. In other words, if this testing is helpful perhaps it will take until a ten year follow-up, before a decrease in prostate cancer rate is seen. Time will tell as the PLCO screening trial is still ongoing.

For now the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that men who are average risk (no family history or are not African American) should have a discussion with their doctors at age 50 about the limitations of PSA and rectal exams to find prostate cancer. If patients are unable to make a decision, then ACS suggests that doctors to the following:

After this discussion, those men who want to be screened should be tested with the prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test. The digital rectal exam (DRE) may also be done as a part of screening.

  • If, after this discussion, a man is unable to decide if testing is right for him, the screening decision can be made by the health care provider, who should take into account the patient’s general health preferences and values.
  • Men who choose to be tested who have a PSA of less than 2.5 ng/ml, may only need to be retested every 2 years.
  • Screening should be done yearly for men whose PSA level is 2.5 ng/ml or higher.

What to make of all of this? Medical research is constantly evolving. The more scientists investigate and study what works and what doesn't then the more precise doctors can figure out what must be done to keep you healthy. Despite public service announcements, prostate cancer screening has always been more controversial than screenings for other cancers because it wasn't clear that early detection made a difference. Certainly the most recent findings do nothing to change that sentiment.

For ACS, an organization focused on improving Americans' awareness to screen for cancer, to essentially tell men not to get prostate cancer screening demonstrates how unconvincing the evidence is that testing allows men to live longer. Another important learning is that patients need to understand that we still have a long way to go until we, doctors, have the tools to make precise diagnoses on which individual has an aggressive form of prostate cancer that requires medical intervention before becoming deadly and which others cancers are too small or slow growing to make a difference in a man's life.

Based on the latest evidence it is possible that with screening you might be diagnosed with prostate cancer, receive treatment that may include surgery or radiation which can result in impotence or urinary incontinence, as you and your doctor believe you've done the right thing to keep your self well. It is equally likely, however, that all of the interventions, treatments, pain, and complications you subjected yourself to made absolutely no difference.

So before you get a panel of blood work for a physical, ask your doctor if prostate cancer screening is proven to save lives. If he says yes, then you might want to print this out and ask him to explain the PLCO findings because you don't want to do more if it makes no difference it allowing to you live longer and healthier.


kennylin said...

Well said. It's important also to consider the costs of screening observed in the European study, which estimated that 48 men needed to be treated (and 30-50% suffer impotence and incontinence as a result of treatment) for every 1 man's life that was extended (I prefer extended to "saved," since we all die sometime) from not dying of prostate cancer.

Anonymous said...

There is one statistic that is pretty certain. 1 in 6 men get prostate CA in the USA and this is a strikingly the same as Women and breast CA. So I imagine then that as time marches forward more and more men will be in that category of genetically predisposed. I think that knowing what one is dealing with is much better than being in the dark. One can do many things to slow prostate CA and support the body to be less of a feeding ground for future cancer. If we as a society decided to reduce breast screening for women there would be anarchy!!!!! The very same thing is going on with breast CA. They have specific testing that reveals minute CA cells in the milk ducts of women. Do these women need to go through untold horrors of breast removal and permanent damage to their lymph drainage etc.???? There are no easy answers and this is the truth, because as the article says treatment options are always changing and follow up studies are not very long. One can only make the decision they feel best at the time in history they discover they have CA. Should screening be taken away based on this study ? I think not. Should we re-examine our current ways of treating CA and follow up? Most definitely. Make no mistake chemo, radiation and Sx procedures are huge business and to change these current systems is going to take a long time. Am I at peace that my husband(47 years old)had early screening for prostate CA and Removal of his prostate by robotic Sx less than one year ago?. Only time will tell.


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