Prostate cancer screenings
Prostate cancer screening - PSA; Prostate cancer screening - digital rectal exam; Prostate cancer screening - DRE
Cancer screenings can help find signs of cancer early, before you notice any symptoms. In many cases, finding cancer early makes it easier to treat or cure. However, at present it is not clear if screening for prostate cancer is helpful for most men. For this reason, you should speak with your health care provider before having a prostate cancer screening.
As men get older, they have a lot of new worries to deal with, from hair loss, weight gain, perhaps even erectile dysfunction. In addition, cancer is one of the biggest concerns that older men face, especially prostate cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death in men over 75. Younger men may not be very familiar with their prostate, the walnut-shaped gland that wraps around the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body. But as they get older, the prostate can start to cause problems. Men over the age of 60 are at increased risk for prostate cancer, especially if they're of African descent, they have a father or brother with the disease, or they eat a lot of burgers and processed meats in their daily diet. It can be hard to pinpoint prostate cancer symptoms, because they usually start late in the disease and they can mimic symptoms of a benign, enlarged prostate, which is also more common in older men. Symptoms like a slow urine stream, dribbling, blood in the urine, or straining while urinating can be signs of either condition. An enlarged prostate can also confuse the results of a PSA test, which is used to screen for prostate cancer. So, if your doctor thinks you might have prostate cancer, you may need a biopsy, which is a procedure that removes a small piece of prostate tissue and sends it to the lab to check for cancer. Then a scoring system called the Gleason grade is used to tell how fast your cancer might spread. Your Gleason grade will help decide what treatment you get. Early-stage prostate cancers that haven't spread are often removed with surgery, and then treated with radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Prostate cancer surgery may affect your ability to have sex and control urine, so talk about these issues with your doctor before you have the procedure. Because prostate cancer tends to grow very slowly, your doctor may want to just monitor you with PSA tests and biopsies, and avoid treatment unless the cancer starts to spread. Prostate cancer that has spread is usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy. If your doctor discovers prostate cancer in its early stages, before it spreads, it's pretty easy to treat, and even cure. Treatments can also slow down prostate cancer that's spread, and extend your survival. Before you have to deal with a prostate cancer diagnosis, ask your doctor for ways to prevent and screen for the disease. Eating a healthy, low-fat diet that's high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids might help lower your risk. There are also drugs called finasteride and dutasteride that are used in some men to prevent prostate cancer. Talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of these drugs, as well as the possible benefits and risks of having your PSA levels tested.
Types of Screenings
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is a blood test that checks the level of PSA in your blood.
- In some cases, a high level of PSA could mean you have prostate cancer.
- But other conditions can also cause a high level, such as infection in the prostate or an enlarged prostate. You may need another test to find out if you have cancer.
- Other blood tests or a prostate biopsy can help diagnose a cancer if the PSA test is high.
Digital rectal exam (DRE) is a test in which your provider inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum. This allows the provider to check the prostate for lumps or unusual areas. Most cancers cannot be felt with this type of exam, at least in the early stages.
In most cases, the first step of prostate cancer screening is the PSA test but not a DRE because the added value of DRE for screening is very small.
Benefits and Risks of Screenings
The benefit of any cancer screening test is to find cancer early, when it is easier to treat. But the value of PSA screening for prostate cancer is debated. No single answer fits all men.
Prostate cancer often grows very slowly. PSA levels can begin to rise years before a cancer causes any symptoms or problems. It is also very common as men age. In many cases, the cancer will not cause any problems or shorten a man's life span.
For these reasons, it is not clear if the benefits of routine screenings outweigh the risks or side effects of being treated for prostate cancer once it is found.
There are other factors to think about before having a PSA test:
- Anxiety. Elevated PSA levels does not always mean you have cancer. These results and the need for further testing can cause a lot of fear and anxiety, even if you do not have prostate cancer.
- Side effects from further testing. If your PSA test is higher than normal, you may need to have one or more biopsies to find out for sure. A biopsy is safe, but can cause problems such as an infection, pain, fever, or blood in the semen or urine.
- Overtreatment. Many prostate cancers will not affect your normal life span. But since it is impossible to know for sure, most people want to get treatment. Cancer treatment can have serious side effects, including problems with erections and urinating. These side effects can cause more problems than the untreated cancer.
Who Needs Screenings
Measuring the PSA level can increase the chance of finding prostate cancer when it is very early. But there is debate over the value of the PSA test for detecting prostate cancer. No single answer fits all men.
If you're 55 through 69 years old, before having the test, talk to your provider about the pros and cons of having a PSA test. Ask about:
- Whether screening decreases your chance of dying from prostate cancer.
- Whether there is any harm from prostate cancer screening, such as side effects from testing or overtreatment of cancer when discovered.
- Whether you have a higher risk for prostate cancer than others.
If you are age 55 or younger, screening is not generally recommended. You should talk with your provider if you have a higher risk for prostate cancer. Risk factors include:
- Having a family history of prostate cancer (especially a brother or father)
- Being African American
For men older than age 70, most recommendations are against screening.
Carter HB. American Urological Association (AUA) guideline on prostate cancer detection: process and rationale. BJU Int. 2013;112(5):543-547. PMID: 23924423
National Cancer Institute website. Prostate cancer screening (PDQ) - health professional version.
Nelson WG, Antonarakis ES, Carter HB, DeMarzo AM, DeWeese TL. Prostate cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 81.
US Preventive Services Task Force, Grossman DC, Curry SJ, et al. Screening for prostate cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA. 2018;319(18):1901-1913. PMID: 29801017
Last reviewed on: 8/15/2022
Reviewed by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.