Prostate cancer screening: clear harms with uncertain benefits

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Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men worldwide,14 and broadly falls into two types. Some men have an aggressive form of the disease; these dangerous cancers spread rapidly and the death rate is high. But many men have slowgrowing cancers that would never progress to cause a danger to health during a man’s lifetime.

Ideally, a screening test would detect the dangerous cancers – with the hope that they could be treated – but not the slow-growing ones. The reason is that treatment of any sort of prostate cancer risks distressing side-effects such as incontinence and impotence – a heavy price to pay if the cancer would not have caused problems in the first place. [15]

Blood levels of a substance called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) are raised in most men with prostate cancer. However, there is no clear cut-off level that will distinguish between men who have cancer and those who do not, [16] and as many as one in five men with clinically significant cancers will have normal PSA levels.

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Moreover, despite its name, PSA is anything but ‘specific’ – for example, non-cancerous prostate tumours, infections, and even some over-the-counter pain-killers can cause raised PSA levels. On these grounds alone, PSA clearly has serious limitations as a screening test.

Yet routine PSA testing of healthy men has been enthusiastically promoted for prostate cancer screening by professional and patient groups and by companies selling the tests, and has been widely adopted in many countries. The pro-PSA-screening lobby has been especially vocal in the USA, where it is estimated that, each year, 30 million men are tested, believing that this is the sensible thing to do. So what is the evidence that earlier detection of prostate cancer with PSA screening improves a man’s outcome; and what is known about harms associated with testing?

High-quality evidence about the benefits and harms of PSA screening is now becoming available. In 2010, the results from all relevant trials were systematically reviewed. This assessment showed that, although PSA screening increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with prostate cancer (as would be expected), there was no evidence of an impact on either the rate of death from the cancer or the overall death rate. [17]

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So, is the tide turning against PSA screening? Richard Ablin, the discoverer of PSA, certainly thinks it should and has been saying as much for years.

Writing in 2010, he commented

‘I never dreamed that my discovery four decades ago would lead to such a profit-driven public health disaster. The medical community must confront reality and stop the inappropriate use of PSA screening. Doing so would save billions of dollars and rescue millions of men from unnecessary, debilitating treatments’.

At the very least, any man, before undergoing PSA testing, should be informed of the test’s limitations and possible adverse consequences.

As one group of experts noted: ‘[men] should be advised that the test cannot tell [them] whether they have a life-threatening cancer but that it could lead them through a thicket of tests and treatments that they might have better avoided’.18