Archive for the ‘PSA guidelines’ Category

The Skinny On Screening for Prostate Cancer

December 29, 2016

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men (after skin cancer), according to the American Cancer Society. It is the second most common cause of death in following lung cancer and causes nearly 30,000 deaths annually in the United States.  The good news is that often prostate cancer can be treated successfully, especially when caught in its early stages.   More than 2 million men in America count themselves as prostate cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society.

At the present time screening for prostate cancer is controversial in the medical profession.  There are physicians who believe that testing all men for prostate cancer outweighs the benefit because it may find some very slow growing cancers in some men that could be left alone without any negative consequences. My personal opinion is that prostate cancer screening should be done but requires education and a decision made between doctor and patient.

My belief is that if prostate cancer is detected early, it has a favorable  prognosis. If men ask me what are the early signs of prostate cancer, the answer is that there are NO early signs of prostate cancer when it is confined to the prostate gland.  That is why men need to have an examination or the digital rectal examination and a PSA test.

Risk factors help determine who should be screened when

The protocol starts by evaluating men for their risk factors for developing prostate cancer. Risk factors include: age (after age 50 risk of prostate cancer rises rapidly); race (men of African-American and Caribbean descent are at higher risk); and family history (men who have a father, brother, or uncle with prostate cancer are at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer and should be screened on a regular basis) Men should be screened every year until they reach age 70 or 75. For most men who reach age 70 and all their screening tests are normal, the chances of their developing a cancer that would impact their well-being or their longevity is really low.

Managing the elevated PSA test

If your screening detects a possible cancer, your doctor will order a biopsy. This is done in the office under a local anesthesia and takes 10-15 minutes.  If the biopsy detects prostate cancer, then the next step is to determine the aggressiveness of the cancer or how likely it is to spread or grow.  For men with low-risk tumors that are not going to put their health or longevity at risk, I will often recommend surveillance, which means regular testing of the PSA and a follow up biopsy in 12-18 months.  As long as the PSA remains stable and there is no evidence of escalation of the cancer, then these men can be safely followed and only treated if the cancer appears to be growing or the PSA is steadily increasing.  Men with more aggressive tumors may need surgery and\or radiation. You and your doctor will make the best treatment decisions for you together.

Bottom Line:  Prostate cancer is a common cancer and can easily be diagnosed with prostate cancer screening.  Not all men need to be screened, but if you are between 50 and 70 years of age, speak to your doctor about the benefits of screening and make an informed decision if screening is right for you.

PSA Testing for Prostate Cancer-To Screen or Not to Screen That is the Question

September 28, 2016

Today, nothing is more confusing for men than the concept of screening for prostate cancer.  Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men, following lung cancer, and there are 250,000 men each year diagnosed with prostate cancer and causes nearly 30,000 deaths a year.  About one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime.

But some prostate cancers develop slowly, and, as the disease is more common in elderly men, most men with prostate cancer die with it and not from it. Thus, screening, diagnosis and treatment of the disease are controversial.

There is no consensus about prostate cancer screening as early diagnosis can be associated with very bothersome side effects such as erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence.  Also screening has not been universally shown to increase survival or decrease the death rate from prostate cancer.  This article will discuss the pros and cons of PSA screening for men.

Men who opt for screening undergo a digital rectal exam and a blood draw to measure a chemical called PSA or prostate specific antigen. This level of PSA can be increased in men with prostate cancer. Other conditions may cause the increase in the PSA such as benign enlargement of the prostate gland and prostate infections.

The best way to detect an early potentially deadly case is to collect yearly PSA tests over three to five years so trends can be assessed.

I like most other urologists are concerned about over treatment of prostate cancer — in other words, being too aggressive in using surgery or radiation when a small amount of potentially slow-growing cancer is found on a biopsy.

The federal government has also become concerned about this issue. A large medical research trial called the Prostate Lung Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Study released results from 2009 showing no benefit from screening for prostate cancer when comparing a large group of unscreened men to a large group of aggressively screened men.

Researchers across the country are assessing the effects of the USPSTF recommendations on prostate cancer mortality since 2012. In a recent study from Northwestern University in Chicago, researchers found a significant increase in the cases of advanced prostate cancer already spread to other parts of the body from 2004 to 2013. As a result we could be missing serious cancers because of decreased screening.

Prostate cancer also has a hereditary predilection and men with a father, brother, cousin, or uncle should consider having screening around age 40.  This also applies to African-American men who have a greater risk of prostate cancer than Caucasian men and should also have testing after age 40.

My best advice is to ask your doctor\urologist about the decision to undergo prostate cancer screening.

PSA Testing-What Every Man Needs to Know

January 18, 2016

Prostate specific antigen is a simple blood test that can be a metric for prostate health.  It is a good screening test for prostate cancer.  This blog will discuss the PSA test and what you need to know to make a decision to obtain this common test.

Let’s start by reassuring men that having an elevated PSA level does not necessarily mean you have prostate cancer.

PSA is also likely to be increased with benign enlargement of the prostate gland as well as prostate infections or prostatitis.

It is important to emphasize that the PSA test is not a specific prostate cancer test, but it is a vital first step in screening for the potential presence of cancer.

The other factors that can cause PSA levels to rise:

  • Age: PSA levels can increase gradually as you age
  • Prostatitis: Inflammation of the prostate gland, due to infection or some unknown cause
  • Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH): This condition refers to an enlarged prostate.  More prostate means more cells making prostate specific antigen, increasing the potential for an elevated PSA.
  • Urinary tract infection: can irritate and inflame prostate cells and cause PSA to go up
  • Medications: Some medications like Proscar, Avodart, or Propecia can falsely lower your PSA.  This too is important to remember.  If you are on any of these medications, talk to your doctor.  The general rule of thumb is to double your PSA for an accurate score.
  • Sex/ejaculation:  This can cause a mild elevation in the PSA, but should return to normal after a few days. That is why I usually recommend that men refrain from sexual intimacy for 48 hours prior to PSA testing
  • Prostate trauma: Anything that causes direct trauma to the prostate such as riding a bike, having a catheter inserted into the blader, a prostate biopsy, or a cystoscopy which is a look using a lighted tube through the urethra (tube in the penis that transports semen and urine) can increase the PSA temporarily.

A PSA level of less than 4.0 ng/mL is normal, while changes of more than 2.0 ng/mL over the course of a year could be an indicator of the presence of prostate cancer.

I point out that there is a familial or inherited basis of prostate cancer and also an increased risk of prostate cancer in African-American men.  In these men who are are at a greater risk of prostate cancer, I suggest annual testing with a digital rectal examination and a PSA test after age 40.  For all others, I suggest testing begin at age 50.

For men who have an elevated PSA test, then a discussion with the doctor about repeating the test in a few weeks or proceeding to an ultrasound examination and a prostate biopsy is in order.

Bottom Line: PSA testing is a non-specific test used to screen for prostate cancer.  Not all elevations of the PSA test indicate cancer.  Further testing and close monitoring as well as a prostate biopsy is in order.  For more information, speak to your doctor.

Preventive Health For All Men

January 18, 2016

Do you know that most men spend more time taking care of their cars or planning a vacation than they do taking care of their health?  In the U.S., women live 5-7 years longer than men.  I believe one of the reasons is that women seek out regular medical care throughout their entire lives.  They see a obstetrician during child bearing years; they get regular mammograms; they obtain routine PAP smears and other preventive health measures for their entire lives.  Men, on the other hand, stop seeing a doctor around age 18 and never see the inside of a medical office until middle age.  During that time they can have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes, and prostate diseases.

But there are some things men, in particular, should keep in mind when it comes to maintaining their health:

Heart disease and cholesterol

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 200,000 people die each year from preventable heart disease and strokes, with men being significantly more at risk than women.

Men should begin screenings for these issues in their mid-30s.

Annual health examinations should begin at around age 50.  This should include a test for anemia, a cholesterol level, a chest x-ray if the man is a smoker, a PSA test for prostate cancer, and a blood pressure determination.

For those men with an elevated cholesterol level, they can lower the level by adhereing to  a healthy diet consisting less heavy in red meats and carbohydrates, and limiting alcohol consumption, i.e., 2 drinks\day. Men of all ages should also continue to stay physically active by incorporating aerobic activities, i.e., any activity that increases the heart rate for 20 minutes 3-4 times a week, into their lifestyle, as well as strength training.

Prostate health

There is some debate among health care professionals about when men should begin screening for prostate cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the CDC recommend against screening unless men begin experiencing the symptoms associated with prostate cancer. These include frequent urination, especially at night, pain during urination and difficulty fully emptying the bladder.

Prostate screening can begin earlier in life, around age 40, if there is a high risk for prostate cancer, such as family history, or bothersome lower urinary tract symptoms.


As men age, lowering testosterone levels can become another area men should monitor.  Significantly low testosterone levels can predispose a man to low bone mineral density with subsequent bone fractures, erectile dysfunction (impotence) and low energy levels.

Testing for testosterone levels is done through a blood test.

Bottom Line: these are the minimal preventive care that all men should consider around age 30-40.  Remember if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, may apply to your car, but not to your body.  You need to take preventive measures with your body just as you do with your automobile.

PSA Testing For Prostate Cancer-New Recommendations For 2015

February 16, 2015

In 2012 the United States Task Force released guidelines for PSA testing for prostate cancer that stated that no man should be tested for prostate cancer with a PSA test since there was far too many man who were over-diagnosed and who had treatment and complications from the treatment and that the cancer was so slow growing that few men would die of their prostate cancers.

Two physicians’ groups are now recommending informed decision-making when it comes to screening for prostate cancer. This is in line with American Cancer Society guidelines for early detection of prostate cancer.

The American Urological Association (AUA), the leading organization representing urologists, is recommending more moderate use of prostate cancer screening tests.

In its new guidelines, the AUA recommends that men ages 55 to 69 discuss the benefits and harms of prostate cancer screening with their doctors before deciding whether to be screened. It recommends against screening for men younger than 55 who are at average risk, as well as for men 70 and older.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) released a similar guidance statement in April 2013. The ACP says men between the ages of 50 and 69 should discuss the limited benefits and substantial harms of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test with their doctor before undergoing screening for prostate cancer. The guideline says only men between the ages of 50 and 69 who express a clear preference for screening should have the PSA test.

These new recommendations are closer to those of the American Cancer Society and several other groups issued in recent years. The American Cancer Society recommends that men discuss the possible risks and benefits of prostate cancer screening with their doctor before deciding whether to be screened. The discussion about screening should take place starting at age 50 for men who are at average risk of prostate cancer and expect to live at least 10 more years. It should take place at age 40-45 for men who are at higher risk, this includes African-American men and men who have a father or brother diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The discussion with the doctor should include an explanation to men of the uncertainty of the PSA test, potential harms from the prostate biopsy and treatments such as surgery and radiation, and potential benefits of PSA screening. Use of this test should be a decision made by the individual patient in collaboration with his healthcare provider.

Some limitations of screening

Screening looks for disease in people who have no symptoms. The main goal of prostate cancer screening is to reduce deaths due to prostate cancer. But the studies showed that the number of men who avoided dying of prostate cancer because of screening after 10 to 14 years was very small.

And screening isn’t perfect. Sometimes screening misses cancer, and sometimes it finds something suspicious that turns out to be harmless. The PSA test often produces false-positive results. For example men with an enlarged prostate gland or men with an infection of the prostate gland can have an elevated PSA level. Also, there aren’t reliable tests yet to tell the difference between prostate cancer that’s going to grow so slowly it will never cause a man any problems, and dangerous or aggressive prostate cancer that will grow quickly. Treatments for prostate cancer can have urinary, bowel, and sexual side effects that may seriously affect a man’s quality of life.

Bottom Line: The PSA is not a perfect test. It is inexpensive and it is non-invasive. It is useful as a baseline test and can help a man decide if he should proceed to a biopsy or to have treatment for his cancer. A thorough discussion between the man and his doctor is the best recommendation that I can provide for all men who are concerned about prostate cancer.

Elevated PSA Linked to Shiftwork

February 16, 2015

Men who work night shifts or rotating shifts are more likely to have elevated PSA levels than men who do not.
In an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2005-2010), Erin E. Flynn-Evans, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues found shiftworkers had a 2.6 times increased risk of an elevated PSA (4.0 ng/mL or higher) compared with non-shiftworkers after adjusting for confounders.
The researchers, who published their findings online ahead of print in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, concluded that sleep or circadian disruption is associated with elevated PSA, indicating that shiftworking men likely have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer.
A previous prospective cohort study of Japanese rotating-shift workers demonstrated that, compared with day workers, rotating-shift workers had a significant threefold increased risk of prostate cancer after adjusting for age, family history of prostate cancer, and other potential confounders, according to a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology (2006;164;549-555).

Take Home Message: If you are caring for a middle age man who does shift work, it is a good idea to encourage him to get a PSA and a digital rectal exam annually.

More FAQs From My Patients

February 16, 2015

I have a high cholesterol level. Is there anything I can do to lower the cholesterol level besides medications, i.e., statins?
Yes, there are cholesterol lowering foods that are effective and have absolutely no side effects. These include:
Soluble fiber of 25gms each day is helpful and good for the colon as well. Good sources of soluble fiber include legumes such as peas and beans; cereal grains such as oats and barley and vegetables and fruits such as carrots, apples, and dried plums (prunes).
Nuts to the rescue. Although nuts are high in fat, the fats are predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which are known to decrease LDL cholesterol levels or bad cholesterol. By eating a daily helping of nuts — about 2.4 ounces — results in an average 5% reduction in total cholesterol concentration. Nuts that will help lower LDL cholesterol levels include almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pecans, macadamias and pistachios.
Plant sterols and stanols, plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol, partially block the absorption of cholesterol from the small intestine. They lower levels of LDL cholesterol without adversely affecting high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol levels. Plant sterols and stanols, plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol, partially block the absorption of cholesterol from the small intestine. They lower levels of LDL cholesterol without adversely affecting high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol levels.
So you can begin by decreasing your consumption of red meat, butter, and high cholesterol containing seafood such as crayfish (heaven forbid!) shrimp and lobster and try these other non-medical options. If these do not work, then talk to your doctor about medication.

I am thinking of having a vasectomy. Is there any risk of erectile dysfunction or impotence?
No, you have nothing to worry about. A vasectomy ONLY prevents the sperm from entering into the ejaculate or seminal fluid. It does not affect the testosterone level or the ability to engage in sexual intimacy. If your erections are good before the vasectomy, they will remain just like they were prior to the vasectomy. So it is safe to proceed with the “prime cut”!

I am a man 78 years of age. Do I need to have a PSA test for prostate cancer?
No, the American Cancer Society and the American Urological Association do not recommend screening for prostate cancer with the PSA test in men more than 75 years. Cancer screening tests — including the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test to look for signs of prostate cancer — can be a good idea in younger men between 50-75 but not in men over age 75. A normal PSA test, combined with a digital rectal exam, can help reassure you that it’s unlikely you have prostate cancer. But getting a PSA test for prostate cancer is not be necessary for men 75 and older.

I am 40 years of age and ate some red beets. My urine turned red. Is that normal after consuming red beets?
Usually red urine after red beet consumption is a result of a pigment, betalain, in the red beets and is nothing to worry about. However, if the red persists more than 24 hours after consuming the beets, then it is important to see your physician and have a urine examination. When the red color persists, this is referred to as hematuria. Hematuria is a clinical term referring to the presence of blood, specifically red blood cells, in the urine. Whether this blood is visible only under a microscope or present in quantities sufficient to be seen with the naked eye, hematuria is a sign that something is causing abnormal bleeding in the patient’s genitourinary tract. For more information on hematuria, please go to my website:

Prostate Cancer –Management of Low Risk Disease*

July 27, 2014

Prostate cancer remains one of the most common cancers in men with 250,000 new cases each year and causes nearly 40,000 deaths each year. Like most other cancers there are shades of gray and not all cancers need to have treatment. This blog will discuss the use of androgen deprivation therapy and when it might used in men with advanced prostate cancer.

There’s nothing like an elevated prostate specific antigen (PSA) test result to strike fear into even the most unflappable and courageous of men. That’s because elevations in PSA in the blood can point to the presence of prostate cancer. On the other hand, elevated PSA can also indicate prostatic enlargement or inflammation of the prostate. However, an elevated PSA test result, combined with a digital rectal exam and a 12-core prostate biopsy to remove small pieces of prostate tissue from the gland, will provide a very good idea as to whether a man has cancer or not.

About 40 to 50 percent of the 241,000 men expected to be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year will have a suspicious PSA score and a Gleason score of 6 out of 10, which is based on the prostate biopsy. A Gleason score of 6 is an indicator of a very favorable or low-risk disease, a disease that is treatable and curable — if, in fact, a man chooses to treat it.

Facing treatment decisions. Once a man has a prostate cancer diagnosis, he then has to choose what type of treatment he wants, which can include surgery or radiation therapy; men with low-risk cancer can also opt for active surveillance, or close monitoring without any immediate treatment. However, these men have to have a digital rectal exam and PSA test and possibly a repeat biopsy on a regular basis.

The good news is that low-risk prostate cancer — meaning low grade and low stage with a PSA below 10 ng/mL — grows slowly, if at all. Therefore, a man should be sure to discuss with his doctor whether he really needs to undergo any therapy to treat his cancer. That’s because in the majority of cases the answer will be “not now.”

What we have learned over the years with low-grade cancer is that sometimes the best option is no treatment whatsoever. And that includes treatment with androgen deprivation therapy, or ADT.
Earlier this summer, I came across a study in JAMA Internal Medicine that reminded me that many men with low-risk prostate cancer are still being offered primary ADT to treat their cancer, something that we would not recommend at Johns Hopkins. The reason: ADT offers no survival benefit for men with low-risk cancer and it causes significant side effects, including osteoporosis, diabetes and decreased libido.

Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT)–also called hormone deprivation, or hormonal or androgen ablation–is effective at turning off the body’s supply of male hormones, which prostate cells need to grow and develop. When the supply is shut off by drugs or by removing the testes, a portion of the cancer dies, tumors generally shrink, and PSA levels drop.

It’s androgens, or male hormones, that stimulate the growth of prostate tumors. The two most common androgens are testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Since the Nobel Prize-winning discovery by Dr. Charles Huggins of the University of Chicago that prostate tumors depend on these hormones to grow, reducing androgen levels or blocking the action of androgen (androgen suppression) has become the standard of care for men with cancer that has spread beyond the prostate (metastasized) to the bones and other organs. There has also been increasing interest in using it in men whose PSA level has begun to rise after treatment with surgery or radiation (“biochemical recurrence,” an early sign that the cancer has not been eradicated).

Most urologists typically wait until there is evidence of metastatic disease before starting with ADT. There is an exception, however, and that is when we see a rapid PSA doubling time (less than six months) — because this provides indirect evidence of micrometastic disease that will develop in the next few years.

While ADT plays a significant role in the treatment of advanced prostate cancer, it has no role in the treatment of older men with low-risk cancer. Yet primary ADT is nevertheless being prescribed for one in eight men over age 65 diagnosed with localized prostate cancer.

The JAMA article. In the JAMA Internal Medicine study conducted by Grace L. Lu-Yao, Ph.D., a cancer epidemiologist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, more than 66,000 older men with low-risk prostate cancer were followed for up to 15 years. Dr. Lu-Yao reported that those men who received ADT lived no longer on average when compared with men who did not receive the therapy.

Prescribing ADT for these low-risk patients may decrease the high anxiety level that a patient may have due to his cancer diagnosis, however, it is necessary to note that such treatment may carry more risk than benefit. ADT helps reduce anxiety by quickly dropping PSA levels into the undetectable range, so the doctors may feel that they are doing something positive for their patients. However, ADT may not really be in the patient’s best interest due to complex side effects. The doctor should really be talking to patients with low-risk disease about pursuing active surveillance, not ADT.

There are serious potential risks associated with ADT, including coronary heart disease, and the associated high costs of the medications, the use of primary ADT should be limited to patients in the high-risk cancer group who are not suitable for, or opt not to receive, primary therapy — surgery or radiation — that has the potential to cure.
The side effects associated with ADT. In general, hormonal therapy will cause significant side effects after several months of treatment. Long-term side effects of ADT may include one, some or all of the following:
• Anemia
• Coronary heart disease
• Decreased energy
• Decrease in mental acuity
• Depression
• Diabetes
• Erectile dysfunction
• Hot flashes
• Loss of muscle mass
• Osteopenia
• Osteoporosis

Bottom Line: Many men with prostate cancer who have low risk disease or who have recurrence after treatment with radiation or surgery. This is usually detected by a rising PSA after treatment for prostate cancer that is confined to the prostate gland. These men should have a discussion with their urologists and discuss if androgen deprivation therapy is really in their best interests and that the benefits vs. the side effects are worth the treatment with androgen deprivation therapy.

*This blog was modified from the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, July 2014

Prostate Cancer-Watch, Wait, and Not Whither

January 24, 2014

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men and the second most common cause of death in men after lung cancer.  The diagnosis is made with a PSA blood test and a digital rectal exam and if either of these are abnormal, the man is subjected to a prostate biopsy.  Then comes the big decision: does the man proceed to treatment and face the risk of urinary incontinence and\or erectile dysfunction\impotence?

In the past few years there has been a trend towards active surveillance or after receiving the diagnosis of prostate cancer, the man accepts close monitoring with repeated blood tests and possibly repeat prostate biopsies to make certain that the cancer is not progressing or escaping from the prostate and spreading to other organs or structures. 

First a comment on screening.  Men between the ages of 55 and 69 are those most likely to benefit from screening with a PSA blood test and a digital rectal examination.  A man should only be screened after a discussion with his\her physician about the benefits and harms of screening.  A new trend is not to treat every man diagnosed with prostate cancer or active surveillance.   Not every man qualifies for active surveillance. 

Men with a very low risk of cancer progression have a low-grade cancer of the prostate.  Prostate cancers are graded from 1-10 and those with a score of 6 or less may be candidates for active surveillance.  Men are in the very low risk group if only a few of the biopsies are positive for cancer and that the cancer is not felt on the digital rectal exam. 

Men who were on the active surveillance program at John Hopkins School of Medicine had a 2.8% would die of their prostate cancer compared to 1.6% of men who had a very low risk of cancer progression who had surgical removal of their prostate glands.  The researches at John Hopkins found that the average increase in life expectancy after surgical removal of the prostate gland was only 1.8 months and that the men on active surveillance would remain free of treatment for an additional 6.4 years as compared to men who had immediate treatment with surgery on their prostate glands. 

Bottom Line: Men need to have a discussion with their physicians about the benefits and risks of prostate cancer screening.  Men with a life expectancy in excess of 20 years or younger men who have low risk disease may accept the risks of treatment rather than take the chance their cancer will cause harm later.  Men with very low risk disease can take comfort that their disease can safely be managed by active surveillance. 


To PSA or not to PSA…that is the questio-Everything you wanted to know about PSA and not afraid to ask?

August 21, 2013

John Doe is 55 years old. He has no urinary symptoms. He goes for his annual physical exam. His prostate exam is normal, but his prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test is 4.5, which is slightly elevated. His last PSA test was 2 years ago, and at that time it was 2.7. He is referred to a urologist and a discussion takes place regarding whether he should proceed to a prostate gland biopsy based upon this elevated PSA. What is he to do? This chapter will review the background of the PSA test. What is it’s purpose, and how it is used to make decisions regarding the diagnosis, evaluation and management of men with prostate issues and prostate cancer.

PSA is the most useful and accurate cancer marker of all the cancer “markers” used in medicine today. This statement is of almost universal agreement among physicians and researchers working in cancer treatment and research. Some of you may find that statement a bit startling in light of all the negative press that has appeared regarding the PSA test in recent history. Lets define then what is meant by a “marker.” This is different than cancer screening” which has actually been where the controversy surrounding PSA has arisen. A marker for a tumor is “A substance that can be detected in higher than normal amounts in the blood, urine, or body tissues of some patients with certain types of cancer.” ( Other examples of tumor markers include CEA in the case of some gastrointestinal tumors, CA-125 as a marker in ovarian cancer, Beta-HCG and alpha-fetoprotein in some testicular tumors, and even abnormal cells found in a Pap smear used to detect cervical cancer in women.

But as markers go, the PSA test, in a patient diagnosed WITH prostate cancer (PCa), no marker is superior in monitoring the progress and even prognosis of a PCa patient as is the PSA test.


It may seem as if we have always used the PSA test in screening for, and in evaluation and follow-up of men with prostate cancer, but its usefulness in this arena is actually of fairly recent onset. There is no question that the discovery of this tiny molecule has dramatically, and forever changed the playing field in the world of PCa.

Before the discovery of PSA the world of screening for, and of attempting to make an early and timely diagnosis of prostate cancer was entirely different. In the pre-PSA era, and this includes all the years prior to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when PSA became clinically useful, it was very difficult for clinicians to diagnose PCa in a stage where it could be cured by the therapies of that time. Prior to the use of PSA as a screening tool, all we clinicians had at our disposal was our digital exam, our level of suspicion based upon a family history, and to some extent, a blood test called Prostatic Acid Phosphatase, or PAP. Unfortunately, in a large number of men eventually diagnosed by one of these methods, the cancer had often spread beyond the prostate, and hence, was incurable by the technologies of the time.

As strange as it may sound, the actual discovery of PSA is clouded in controversy, and it seems several scientists have been called the discoverers. PSA seems to have been first identified in he U.S., by Dr. Richard Ablin and his associates as early as 1970. A subsequent article by Dr. Ming Wang was published in 1979, and this has often has been cited, apparently incorrectly, as the first scientific article cited as the “discovery” of PSA. This 1979 publication however, was the first to advance the idea that the PSA test could purified and could be useful in detection of prostate cancer. At this point, research was then directed towards developing a commercially usable, reliable, reproducible, and reasonably priced blood test that could be made available to the public.

Some of the very early developmental research for PSA was on it’s presence in semen and to assess it’s properties and usefulness as a forensic marker for rape victims. Soon however, the usefulness of PSA as a screening tool for prostate cancer became quite evident, and as they say, “the rest is history.”

As early as 1981 research was demonstrating significant differences in the blood PSA levels in patients with benign, non-cancerous prostate enlargement (BPH) as opposed to men with prostate cancer. In addition, research in the early 1980’s was demonstrating that men with more advanced prostate cancers had higher blood levels of PSA than men with less advanced cancer.

So, as literally millions of data points were studied, what then is accepted as a “normal” PSA. The very simple answer is up to 4 nannograms per milliliter, or 4ng/ml. It’s never really that simple however. There are many nuances the physician must consider when evaluating a man and his PSA. For example a PSA of 3 in a man of 50 might be worrisome, where a PSA of 5 in a 75 year old man might not be. Change over time can be important. A man whose PSA went from 1 to 3 in one year, both “normal” numbers, might be more worrisome for cancer than a man who has had PSA’s between 5 and 7 over the past 10 years. More on this later, but for most lab reports you will see “normal” for PSA as between zero and 4.

During this same timeframe it was becoming apparent that men who had undergone curative treatment for prostate cancer had PSA levels close to zero, and that if the cancer reappeared, the PSA levels began to climb, making the test very useful in following, or monitoring patients to detect failure or success of treatment. In addition, it became clear that a rise in PSA could be seen usually long before the location of the recurrence could be detected by other means.

Despite all this favorable research data accumulating in the early 1980’s, PSA was originally approved by the FDA in 1986 to monitor the progression of prostate cancer in men who were diagnosed with the cancer. It may surprise you that it was not until 1994 that the FDA approved the PSA blood test , along with a digital rectal exam (DRE), to screen men without symptoms, for prostate cancer. Clearly, over this two decade period, screening for cancer with PSA and DRE has become commonplace in medicine.

Things have now gone backwards in the eyes of many clinicians, in that NOW, another governmental agency, the U.S. Preventive Task Force (USPSTF) recommends AGAINST prostate cancer screening. More on this controversial move, to follow.

Since PSA has dramatically changed our approach to screening for, diagnosing, and monitoring prostate cancer, what has changed in the two decades since this approach has been in full swing? The incidence rates for PCa took a significant upturn at the same time PSA test was approved by the FDA, and even before it was FDA-approved for screening of asymptomatic men. Clearly, clinicians recognized its utility for screening before it was “officially” approved for this particular use. The incidence rates of prostate cancer remain much higher than it was in the pre-PSA era. This is a reflection of our ability to diagnose the disease much earlier now, and not due to an actual increase in the true incidence of the disease in our society. One of the arguments of proponents of “non-screening” with PSA is that many more men are being diagnosed with cancer that might never have impacted their lives had it never been detected. More on this later.

Along with improved early detection brought on by the advent of PSA, the death rates have also begun to fall. This would certainly be anticipated. If we can diagnose cancer, or for that matter, almost any medical condition, before it is far advanced, our chances of cure or survival are enhanced. Death rates, calculated as rates per 100,000 males was rising slowly from about 1940 until about 1985 when the death rate took a spike through about 1995, and has fallen steadily over the past 20 years or so.

The number of men dying in the U.S. yearly from PCa is a little over 30,000. Many clinicians involved in studying this disease feel that if these men who die of the disease had been seeing a physician yearly, and had been undergoing appropriate screening we might be able to drop this number of deaths perhaps as much as 90%. Even with appropriate screening, and let’s say even if 100% of men over the age of 50, could be screened yearly for PCa, there would still be some deaths from the disease. Some men, albeit a small percentage, will develop a form of prostate cancer that is so aggressive and virulent, that even with the best treatments available to us today, we still cannot cure them.

Since it is intuitively clear to all of us, that early diagnosis of disease is good, and we all now know the wonderful utility of the PSA test in early detection of PCa, why has the test gotten so much negative publicity? In fact, if you have been watching, there has been almost no positive publicity in the past few years, but there has been an onslaught of negative. We physicians are asked daily now by our patients as to why there is this negativity, and then whether they should be doing the test. More about how to make the decision to test, or screen, for prostate cancer. Some guidelines to help you in this decision will follow in soon in this chapter.

We will look into the science, and some would call it “junk science” behind the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations against screening for prostate cancer, but let’s first take a look at some of the “politics” if you will, of cancer screening in general, as this puts a lot of it into a perspective we can all understand. A lot of this seems to be driven by finances on both a private, federal, and state level. Since a large portion of the costs of cancer screening is borne by governmental agencies, and most of the rest, by private insurance, the costs have to be taken into consideration. Now, for the thousands, or millions of Americans whose lives have been saved by early detection, and cure of their own bout with cancer, these cost issues seem quite secondary to them, and to their loved ones. They know cancer screening saves lives. They are living proof.

To actuaries looking from under their green eye shades at the numbers, screening for cancer, regardless of the lives saved, does not make good policy or financial sense. And, they would say arguably, the costs are not sustainable. We all know Medicare is going broke, despite the fact that any of us who have a job, and are receiving a paycheck, are paying not only for the private insurance we are using now, but also Medicare premiums are being taken out of every paycheck. So where does screening for cancer fit in this financial mileu?

Several cancers have taken a hit lately. Screening mammograms for early detection of breast cancer in women came under fire recently. Women rose up, and the government and insurance companies backed off. Screening for cervical cancer has come under fire, and the recommendation for screening for colon cancer, largely under the radar, has changed too. Will lives be lost? Will failure to detect early cost us in suffering and early demise of untold Americans? Of course. But in a dollars and cents world, screening for cancer is just too expensive. Let’s take a somewhat imaginary look at the numbers before we look at the USPSTF recommendations in detail.

Let us imagine a million men being screened annually for prostate cancer. Since the numbers used here are estimates, they are going to be off a little from what might be absolutely correct, but since the actual numbers are not obtainable, the numbers we use here at least give us a reasonably accurate framework. And this is done, only to try and put the costs of cancer screening into perspective.

So, back to our one million men being screening annually for PCa. Let’s suppose that this could be done for about $75.00 to include a doctor visit, the exam, and the blood test. Right away we have consumed 75 million dollars. Let’s say that of those million men, everything is normal for 800,000 of them-probably a reasonable estimate. We are through with them for this year. Now of the remaining men something in the exam, the blood test, or the medical history is concerning. The doctor has a concern that these men might have cancer. For those being screened by their primary provider, a consult with a urologist will be needed. Some of these men will be seeing a urologist for their yearly screening, but the others will have to be referred. Let’s say conservatively that of these 200,000 men, 50,000 will need a new and initial consultation with a urologist, and the cost could be around $100.00 for this initial consultation. $5,000,000 there. Some will go to immediate biopsy, but let’s say the doctors decide not to do a biopsy on half of the men, but simply to recheck them, and obtain another blood test in couple months. These would be the men for whom the urologist is not highly suspicious for cancer, but they still will need to be followed appropriately. Another couple million for the second visit and testing of blood for PSA. Now let’s suppose that out of the one million men being screened, only 1% are ultimately thought to need a biopsy. That would be 10,000 men times a conservative cost for biopsy of $1,000.00. Another $ 10,000,000 dollars for the biopsies. Now if 1 in 4 had a positive biopsy, probably 3 in 4 with cancer would need treatment. Millions and millions have been spent before treatment has even started.

So, using these numbers, which are reasonable, the screening costs for 1 million men is easily in the neighborhood of $100,000,000. Now, what if we are trying to screen 5 million men, or 10 million men, or more, yearly? You can see how this adds up to astronomical numbers. And this is only for one cancer. We have not even looked at screening for breast, colon and lung cancers which make up the rest of the “big four.”

With this financial meltdown facing health insurance providers one can see why screening for cancer has become such an issue, and perhaps these numbers factor into some of the decision making processes.

Let us now take a look at the Draft Recommendation Statement from the USPSTF. First, at this time, it is a draft. More will come. If you care to review it in detail, it is available at

However, the salient points will be reviewed for you here. Quoting, “The USPSTF makes recommendations about the effectiveness of specific clinical preventive services without related signs or symptoms.” Keeping in mind here, by the time a man has symptoms or signs of PCa, the cancer has spread beyond the prostate and is no longer curable.

Quoting: “Summary of Recommendation and Evidence. The U.S. Preventive Services Task force (USPSTF) recommends against prostate-specific-antigen(PSA)-based screening for prostate cancer. This is a grade D recommendation.”

What is a grade D recommendation? If you ever got a grade of D in school, you know it is not good! Specifically, the definition is: The USPSTF recommends against the service. There is moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit or that harms outweigh the benefits. Their “Suggestions for Practice” here regarding screening for prostate cancer with the D rating, “Discourage the use of this service.”

Quoting further from the draft document:

“Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed nonskin cancer in men in the the United States, with a lifetime risk of diagnosis currently estimated at 15.9%. Most cases of prostate cancer have a good prognosis, but some are aggressive; the lifetime risk of dying from prostate cancer is 2.8%. Prostate cancer is rare before age 50 years and very few men die of prostate cancer before age 60 years. The majority of deaths due to prostate cancer occur after age 75 years.”

Let’s take a quick look at this 2.8% risk of dying from prostate cancer. About 238,590 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2013, and about 29,720 men die of this cancer in 2013 according to the National Cancer Institute estimates. It would appear from these numbers that the risk of dying from prostate cancer easily exceeds 10%.

The draft document goes on further to elaborate on harms of detection and early intervention to include risks associated with biopsy itself, the adverse effects of treatments be they surgery or radiation or hormone deprivation. Another risk is “overdiagnosis.” This, the panel seems to believe, results in many men being treated for cancer that never would impact their lives. Now since urologists and oncologists treating prostate cancer make every effort not to overtreat the insignificant cancers, we have to wonder what exactly is meant by this? As they were quoted above, “some of these cancers are aggressive,” is there a way to know which type (aggressive vs. non-aggressive) without a diagnosis? Do we as physicians owe it to our patients to help them make decisions for treatment based upon the best evidence we can provide? In most cases, one would answer yes to that question.

There is no doubt this panel put a monumental amount of time and effort into this document, and the conclusions they came to were based upon the evidence they felt was significant. They reviewed at least three large trials regarding prostate cancer, one called the PLCO, another, from Europe. The ERSPC trial, and the preliminary results from the PIVOT trial.

The USPSTF estimates that for every 1,000 men ages 55 to 69 who are screened every one to four years for a ten year period that only a maximum of one death from prostate cancer would be avoided. Using our estimated numbers above, this means it would cost about $1,000,000.00 to save one life. If this is true. There are other ways to run these numbers, and you mathematicians can have a field day with them, but you can see again, screening for cancer is very costly. Now we as physicians don’t see 1,000 men at a time, we see individual men just like you, and together you and I have to try and make our best decisions for your individual health. More on that decision making process later on.

On May 21, 2012, the USPSTF released it’s Final Recommendations of PSA Screening, and the final document confirmed what was said in the draft.

Urologists are at the forefront of being tasked with diagnosing, and in most cases, treating men with prostate cancer. We work closely with our oncology colleagues in men with very advanced cancer. The American Urological Association (AUA) has spoken out against the USPSTF recommendations.

The AUA’s position is one of outrage regarding the USPSTF position and takes the position that the Task Force “is doing men a great disservice by disparaging what is now the only widely available test for prostate cancer, a potentially devastating disease. We hold true to our current position s supported by the AUA’s Prostate Specific Antigen Best Practices Statement that, when interpreted appropriately, the PSA test provides important information in the diagnosis, pre-treatment staging or risk assessment and monitoring of prostate cancer patients.”

(Further 2013 position to be presented in May-will be elaborated here)

So, how are we, as men, to make decisions regarding PSA screening as it fits into our own individual lifestyle, expectations, and plans for our own medical futures?

In simplest terms, if you and your physician feel that if you are screened for PCa it would help you make decisions about the direction you would want to take if you were in fact diagnosed with prostate cancer, then screening is probably a wise step to take.

Let’s keep in mind a few facts. It is clear that PSA screening does reduce mortality from prostate cancer compared to men who are not screened. It is also true that screening has led to a diagnosis of PCa in men in whom the disease might never had caused problems. Many of these men were nonetheless, treated, hence “overtreatment.” It is also true that we as clinicians have gotten much better at helping to cull out those insignificant cancers and counseling our patients accordingly. It is also true that biopsy does carry some risk, albeit small, of serious infection. A small number of men, in our experience, less than 1% will require extended antibiotic therapy after a biopsy, and a few may even end up spending a few days in the hospital for post-biopsy fever and infection. It is also true that some men who are treated for prostate cancer will suffer adverse effects including incontinence, erectile dysfunction and bladder dysfunction. It is also true, that nearly all men who may have these effects can be adequately treated for these adverse consequences.

So, who should be screened? A life expectancy of 10 years is often used as a guideline. Clearly we don’t know how long we will live at any given time, but a very healthy 75 year old man might benefit from screening far more than a 60 year old man who has had a heart attack, bypass surgery, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Now that 60 year old might live to a ripe old age, and that “healthy” 75 year old might have that fatal heart attack tomorrow. Hence, the dilemma we all face-patients and physicians alike. But we try to be as practical here as we can. But if you as a male patient feel that you would want to be in a position to make decisions regarding prostate cancer treatment if you were to be diagnosed, then the decision to screen is likely in your best interest. Our advice is to have this discussion with your physician before screening for prostate cancer.


With regards to PSA screening, what is on the horizon, and what do we have now to further refine and tighten our accuracy of screening for PCa?

Now that so much progress has been made with DNA and in clarifying the human genome, it seems likely that in the not to distant future, genetic identification of those either at high risk, or that in fact WILL develop prostate cancer seems plausible. We are not there yet.

From the National Cancer Institute, here are some ways that scientists and researchers are looking to improve PSA screening.

Free versus total PSA: The lower the free PSA is a percentage of total PSA the more likelihood of finding cancer, and a very low free PSA may be associated with more aggressive cancer. We like to see a free PSA greater than 25% of total. For example, a man with a total PSA of 5, and a free PSA of 2.5 has a 50% ratio. His likelihood of PCa is low (not zero though) Whereas the man with a total PSA of 5, and a free of 0.4 has a ratio of 8%, and his risk for having PCa right now is high. This is useful test, but not perfect.

PSA density of the transitional zone: To gather this information requires ultrasound measurements of the prostate, and though perhaps more accurate than PSA alone, this approach has not been fully validated.

Age-specific PSA reference ranges: Unless a man is taking medication to shrink the prostate, dutasteride or finasteride, the prostate grows a little each year. Hence there are more prostate cells to produce PSA. As a result, a “normal” PSA in a man of 70 may be different that “normal” at age 50. This approach lacks general acceptance in the urological community however, since its use may delay a diagnosis of PCa.

PSA velocity and PSA doubling time: You will recall earlier in this chapter we discussed the man whose PSA went from 1 to 3, as being perhaps more worrisome than a man with a PSA between 5 and 7 while being followed for a decade. Quoting from the National Cancer Institute, “Some evidence suggests that the rate of increase in a man’s PSA level may be helpful in predicting whether he has prostate cancer.”

Pro-PSA: There is quite a lot of work being done looking at these different inactive precursors of PSA, and there is some evidence that pro-PSA may be a better predictor, and hence a better screening methodology than PSA as we are using it today. This is not yet ready for “primetime” yet.

PCa3: This test is readily available for clinical use today, and has a place in our screening toolbox. PCa3 is a chemical produced in the prostate gland. In order to do the test, the physician must put a little pressure on the prostate while doing the digital rectal exam. This pushes a little prostate fluid into the urethra. The patient is then asked to urinate, and the first ounce or so of urine will contain that prostate fluid. This sample is then sent to a specialized lab capable of doing the test. If PCa3 is present in this urine sample, depending upon the degree, the risk of prostate cancer can be further elucidated. The nee for a biopsy can be refined depending upon the result of the PCa3.

One other approach that is receiving increased incidence we will mention only briefly here since this chapter is about PSA, but is being looked at as a screening tool for prostate cancer. This is not a blood test, but an imaging study. Prostate MRI with a powerful 3 tesla MRI machine has shown usefulness in imaging cancer with considerable accuracy within the prostate gland itself.


As the science of prostate cancer diagnosis stands today, biopsy remains the only definitive way to make the diagnosis. There are a couple caveats here-a man with a PSA over 100 probably does not need a biopsy. A man who has on X-Ray definitive evidence of cancer in his bones, and a high PSA many not need a biopsy. However, this chapter is about screening, and especially screening in the man with no symptoms. In that man, biopsy of the prostate remains the final diagnostic test. The use of PSA and the other modalities mentioned above serve mostly to help the physician and the patient decide as to whether proceeding on to biopsy is indicated. We are trying to refine screening so that we will be able to avoid biopsy in many men because, as a result of screening tests, we can reasonably believe our patient does NOT have prostate cancer.

As is clear to all of you now, having read these pages, PSA remains an extremely valuable tool in our cancer screening toolbox. How it can be useful in the case of each individual patient remains just that, individual. With the information we hope you have gained in this chapter, you will hopefully be in a better position to understand the usefulness as well as the limitations of PSA screening. Hopefully the decision making process will be clearer to you as you have discussions with your physician regarding PSA screening for prostate cancer. For many of you, it will be quite simple. If for example, you are a healthy man between 50 and 70 years of age, and you already know that whether you have PCa matters to you so that you can make proper decisions, doing the test is a slam-dunk. This would include a wide swath of men. For some, it will not be so simple, and many factors will have to be considered prior to screening. We hope this chapter has helped.

Let’s go back to our patient described at the beginning of the blog: He is 55 years old, having no urinary symptoms and is in for his physical. His prostate exam is normal, but his PSA is slightly elevated at 4.5. Last year he did not have an exam, but two years ago it was 2.7. He is referred to a urologist and a discussion takes place regarding whether he should proceed to prostate gland biopsy. What should he do? What would you want to do it this was your data? Hopefully, you now have some parameters to help you make the decision in your own individual situation.