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.