The New Skinny On Prostate Cancer Screening With the PSA Test

Prostate cancer remains one of the most common cancers in men and is the second most common cause of death from cancer in men.  (Lung cancer is still leading the list)  The American Cancer Society projects more than 161,000 new cases this year in the U.S., with about 26,730 deaths each year.  Prostate cancer accounted for 4.4% of all cancer deaths in the United States last year.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent and influential panel of experts, published new guidelines in early April 2017 for screening for prostate cancer for the first time in five years.

The new recommendations: Men ages 55 to 69 should “make an individualized decision about prostate cancer screening with their clinician.” That’s updated from a blanket recommendation in 2012 for no routine screening at any age.

The task force also recommends that those men older than 70 shouldn’t undergo PSA screening.

Now doctors are saying that the older recommendation in 2012, i.e., not to screen for prostate cancer likely resulted in deaths that could have been avoided..

The PSA test is a simple blood test that determines levels of the prostate-specific antigen protein, and elevated PSA can be a sign of prostate cancer. But elevated PSA can also be caused by other conditions, like inflammation of the prostate or benign enlargement of the prostate gland.

The risk of potential harm of over-diagnosis has led to confusing recommendations for screening. Treatment for prostate cancer, including removal of the prostate and radiation, is associated with the side effects of incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

False positives can lead to unnecessary further testing or treatment, and many cases of prostate cancer are slow-moving and require watchful waiting rather than immediate treatment.  This means that the men with slow growing, non-aggressive cancer can be followed with a digital rectal exam, frequent PSA testing, and perhaps additional prostate biopsies.

So how useful is PSA screening? According to the New England Journal of Medicine, studies imply that 1 prostate cancer death is averted per 1,000 men screened several times each, and followed for 10 to 15 years.

On the flip side, the authors reported, data show about 35 over-diagnosed cases per 1,000 men screened.

Some groups are at higher risk for prostate cancer, including African-American men and those with a family history of the disease.

Bottom Line: It is my recommendation to my patients 55-69 they have a discussion with their physician and weigh the benefits vs. the harms of PSA testing.  With that discussion the men can make the best choice for themselves, together with their doctor.

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