Prostate cancer: Should healthy men really stop getting tested?

A new government report says the potential harms stemming from PSA tests may outweigh the health benefits

The number of prostate-specific antigens (stained red) is measured by doctors using a blood test as part of regular prostate cancer screenings.
(Image credit: Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Doctors and patient advocacy groups are in a frenzy after a government panel recommended last week that healthy men no longer get screened for prostate cancer. The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force (USPTF) concluded that the potential harms of the prostate-specific antigen blood test outweigh the benefits among healthy men. Here's what you should know:

What's this test all about?

All men's prostate glands secrete the protein called prostate-specific antigen (PSA), but men who have prostate cancer or other prostate problems secrete PSA at a higher rate. Still, the government panel says the test isn't particularly effective, says Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters, because other conditions can trigger high PSA counts — among them, "infections, an enlarged prostate or even recent ejaculation."

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Are PSA tests dangerous?

The test itself isn't the danger; it's the aftermath. False positive results can lead to "needless" medical treatments such as surgery, biopsies, and radiation treatment — sometimes leaving men at high risk of being rendered "impotent, incontinent or both," says Gardiner Harris at The New York Times. Urologists, the doctors who typically administer PSA tests, are fighting the panel's recommendations, questioning both the methodology and conclusion.

What should men do?

That's the debate. Other screening tests, like rectal exams and ultrasounds, aren't very effective either. TIME's Alice Park suggests that healthy middle-aged men remain "vigilant," and discuss their options individually with their doctors. Remember: The panel's latest recommendations don't suddenly eliminate the risk of prostate cancer — they simply cast doubt on a popular screening method.

Sources: NY Times, Reuters, TIME, Technorati

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