A blood screening result that suggests prostate cancer is bound to provoke high anxiety — even though up to 80 percent of those findings turn out to be false positives.
Anxiety deepens, of course, if a biopsy confirms a cancer diagnosis, to the extent that many men demand surgery or radiation even when they don’t need it.
Now, two national health panels have made startling recommendations that call into question the way doctors have been handling prostate cancer testing and treatment. One panel said men should skip standard prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, testing unless they have symptoms such as urinary blockage or pain. A second panel urged many men with low-risk prostate tumors to turn to “active surveillance” rather than immediate surgery or radiation.
The recommendations — the first is part of a draft report by the U.S. Preventive Services task force in October, the second came from a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health in December — have generated controversy, even as researchers work to develop better methods.
“Skipping the PSA is the wrong way to approach it. It’s an extreme viewpoint that will have terrible ramifications on public health if it goes forward,” says Dr. Bruce Kava, interim chair of urology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“I’ve had patients whose cancer was discovered by a PSA test,” adds Dr. Rakesh Singal, a urologist and prostate cancer researcher at the University of Miami medical school.
The Preventive Services task force recommendation came after a months-long study of clinical trials around the world. “The common perception that PSA-based early detection of prostate cancer prolongs lives is not supported by the scientific evidence,” the draft report said. The task force is a congressionally mandated panel of doctors, nurses and other specialists that develops recommendations for doctors and hospitals.
The second recommendation, from a “consensus panel” of 14 researchers and clinicians convened in December by the National Institutes of Health, tackled the treatment side: “Treatment of low-risk prostate cancer with radical prostatectomy or radiation therapy leads to side effects such as impotence and incontinence. Active surveillance has emerged as a viable option.”
Responding to those concerns, researchers in South Florida and around the world are working on better screening tests to replace or at least supplement the PSA test, which has been in use since 1986. Such improved tests could make the screening controversy “moot,” the U.S. Cancer Foundation says. It says studies also are under way to better guide how aggressive treatment should be when cancer is confirmed.
The prostate, a plum-sized gland that sits above the base of the penis and helps produce semen, becomes enlarged in half of all men by age 60, and half of those will have symptoms such as frequent urination, weak stream or inability to completely empty the bladder.
And the symptoms raise the question: Is it benign prostate hyperplasia (enlargement) or prostate cancer? Cancer is not rare. One-third of men ages 40 to 60 and three-quarters of men older than 85 have prostate cancer, federal health officials say — even though most of it is microscopic and clinically insignificant.
Researchers say most of those diagnosed with prostate cancer are likely to grow old and die of something else first. The lifetime risk of death from prostate cancer is only 2.5 percent, and the median age of death from prostate cancer is 80, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, it’s the second-greatest cause of male cancer deaths after lung cancer, killing 32,000 men a year.
“We realize it’s a dilemma,” says Kava, the urologist, calling the number of positive PSA tests that lead to negative biopsies “unacceptably high. … And biopsies are not innocuous. Some find them painful. Also, false positives can create anxiety, sometimes depression.”
Biopsies also cause fever, infection, bleeding and transient urinary difficulty in 68 of every 1,000 procedures, the task force report says. Seeking to balance the benefits of the PSA test against the harms, the task force concluded that men without overt symptoms should skip the PSA tests.
Protest came quickly from the American Urological Association: “We are concerned that the task force’s recommendations will ultimately do more harm than good,” it said. “It is our feeling that, when interpreted appropriately, (the PSA test) provides important information in diagnosis.”
Research at several U.S. universities soon might produce better screening tests to replace or supplement the PSA test, said the California-based Prostate Cancer Foundation, which raises funds for research. Foundation president Jonathan Simons said his group’s 2011 annual Scientific Retreat heard presentations of 17 new tests under way that might improve on the PSA.