Last Updated on June 21, 2023 by Max
In men’s health, few topics stir up as much debate and confusion as prostate cancer screening. It’s a complicated, intricate maze with paths leading to uncertainty and, sometimes, more questions than answers.
Does a high PSA level always signal cancer? Can you have prostate cancer with normal PSA levels? Is screening always beneficial, or can it sometimes lead to more harm than good? How do age and emotional health factor into the decision to screen? You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself grappling with these questions.
Welcome to our comprehensive exploration into the mysterious world of prostate cancer screening. We’ll dive deep into the realities of false positives and negatives, the murky waters of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and the roller coaster of emotions that often accompanies screening. We’ll also explore how age influences screening decisions and the oft-ignored psychological impacts of this complex process.
So, fasten your seatbelts, and let’s dive into the first of our five-part series, starting with “The Reality of False Positives.”
- The Reality of False Positives
- The Main Reasons for False Positive PSA
- The Grey Area of Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment: An In-Depth Examination
- Overdiagnosis: The Silent Specter
- Overtreatment: The Double-Edged Sword
- The Paradigm Shift towards Active Surveillance
- The Mechanisms Enabling the Shift Toward Active Surveillance
- The Elusiveness of the PSA Test: Unraveling the Enigma
- The Emotional Toll of Screening: A Journey of Fear, Relief, and Sometimes, Regret
- The Influence of Age: A Delicate Balance
The Reality of False Positives
Navigating the health landscape, particularly regarding cancer screening, can often feel like walking through a minefield. Understanding the complexities of false positives in prostate cancer screening is vital in this journey. So, let’s delve deeper.
The Tricky Nature of the PSA Test
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing is a crucial tool in the early detection of prostate cancer, but it’s not infallible. The PSA is a protein produced by both normal and malignant cells in the prostate. Conditions like an enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia), a urinary tract infection, or even recent sexual activity can raise PSA levels, leading to a “false positive” result.
Unmasking the Numbers
First, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: false positives. For every 1,000 men between 55 and 69 years old who get screened, about 100 to 120 will have a positive PSA test. But hold your horses – only 25 of them will have prostate cancer. That means many men face the stress of further testing and biopsies for cancer that isn’t there. Yes, a PSA test is just a number that indicates whether or not more investigation is needed. But knowing the implications of a raised PSA can save you from an unnecessary emotional rollercoaster.
The Impact on Men’s Lives
Let’s translate these numbers to a broader scale. If we assume that about 20 million men in the United States are screened each year, based on these statistics, we could estimate that between two and three million men may receive a positive PSA test. Among them, around 500,000 to 750,000 men would have prostate cancer, leaving the rest facing further investigation unnecessarily. That’s a significant number of men embarking on an emotional and physical journey driven by a false alarm.
Biopsies and Beyond
A biopsy is often the next step after a positive PSA test. It involves extracting small samples of prostate tissue for examination under a microscope. Not only is a biopsy invasive, but it also carries its risks, such as infection, bleeding, and even a potential impact on sexual function in some cases.
Moreover, having a biopsy can have a psychological impact due to the stress and anxiety associated with waiting for the results and facing a potential cancer diagnosis. All of this stemmed from a PSA test that might have indicated a problem when there wasn’t one.
Understanding the implications of a raised PSA can equip you to make well-informed decisions about your health. It’s not about dismissing PSA testing or sparking fear; it’s about embracing the complexity of healthcare and choosing to be an active participant in your health journey.
The Main Reasons for False Positive PSA
When understanding how different conditions can influence Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) levels, it’s essential to recognize that individual results can vary widely. There’s no precise number or range that applies universally to all men. That being said, here are some general guidelines:
- Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH): PSA levels can vary widely in men with BPH. Studies show that the size of the prostate (which increases with BPH) strongly predicts PSA levels. For example, men with very enlarged prostates (over 100 cc) may have PSA levels over ten ng/mL, whereas those with smaller prostates may fall in the “normal” range below four ng/mL.
- Prostatitis: Prostatitis can cause the PSA level to rise, but the increase varies widely. In some cases, PSA can be significantly elevated, even above ten ng/mL.
- Urinary Tract Infection or Prostate Infection: UTIs or prostate infections can also lead to elevated PSA levels. Like prostatitis, these conditions can cause a significant rise in PSA, but the increase is usually temporary and decreases once the infection has gone.
- Recent Sexual Activity: Ejaculation can temporarily raise PSA levels, often by less than one ng/mL, but it can vary. This effect can last from several hours to up to 48 hours.
- Recent Prostate Examination: A digital rectal exam (DRE) can potentially cause a slight increase in PSA, usually less than one ng/mL. Similarly, a prostate biopsy can cause a significant temporary rise in PSA, potentially 18 ng/mL or higher.
- Age: Age-specific PSA ranges have been suggested to improve the accuracy of PSA testing. For instance, in men aged 40-49, a PSA level above 2.5 ng/mL is often considered elevated, while in men aged 70 and older, levels up to 6.5 ng/mL are considered normal.
These ranges are rough estimates and can depend on various factors, including the laboratory that analyzes the PSA test, the individual’s health history, and more.
Remember, a raised PSA level doesn’t necessarily indicate prostate cancer, and conversely, prostate cancer can still be present even if PSA levels are within the normal range. The trends in PSA levels and other diagnostic tools help doctors make an accurate diagnosis.
In the next section, we will delve deeper into the gray area of overdiagnosis and overtreatment in prostate cancer, adding another dimension to our understanding of this complex issue.
The Grey Area of Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment: An In-Depth Examination
Next up is Pandora’s box of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
When discussing prostate cancer screening, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment often remain at the periphery of the conversation.
Overdiagnosis: The Silent Specter
Overdiagnosis refers to detecting cancer that, if left untreated, would never cause symptoms or death during a man’s lifetime. Prostate cancer is often slow-growing and can take years, even decades, to cause symptoms or become life-threatening. Some men may die from prostate cancer, not from it.
The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial found that the rate of overdiagnosis of prostate cancer could be as high as 50%. Another study in the British Medical Journal estimated that for every 1,000 men screened regularly for ten years, one to two will have cancer prevented that would cause death, and 40 to 56 will be overdiagnosed.
Overtreatment: The Double-Edged Sword
Closely linked to overdiagnosis is the risk of overtreatment. This involves treating cancers that would not have caused harm if left undetected or untreated. The side effects of treatment—like surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy—can be significant, including urinary incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and bowel problems.
The European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC) estimated that 37 men would need to be diagnosed and treated to prevent one death from prostate cancer. That’s a considerable number of men potentially facing the side effects of treatment for cancer that might not have impacted their lives.
The Paradigm Shift towards Active Surveillance
Thankfully, the tide is turning. The medical community now emphasizes “active surveillance” for low-risk prostate cancers. This strategy involves closely monitoring the cancer and initiating treatment only if it shows signs of progressing. This approach can potentially reduce overtreatment, sparing men from unnecessary side effects.
A study in JAMA found that active surveillance for low-risk prostate cancer increased from 14.5% in 2010 to 42.1% in 2015 (almost three times in five years-not so bad). This trend toward a more balanced approach to managing prostate cancer marks a significant step in the right direction.
The Mechanisms Enabling the Shift Toward Active Surveillance
Indeed, the shift towards active surveillance as a primary management strategy for low-risk prostate cancer didn’t happen overnight. It’s the product of several intertwined mechanisms and factors:
Improved Understanding of Prostate Cancer Progression
One of the key factors contributing to this shift is an improved understanding of the biology and progression of prostate cancer. Research has shown that many prostate cancers are slow-growing and may never cause symptoms or become life-threatening. This has led to a greater appreciation for the role of active surveillance in managing these low-risk cancers.
Advancements in Diagnostic Tools
The development and refinement of diagnostic tools have allowed for more precise classification of prostate cancers, aiding in the differentiation between low-risk and high-risk cancers. Advanced imaging techniques, improvements in biopsy procedures, and the emergence of molecular markers have all played a part in this process.
Recognition of the Impact of Treatment Side Effects
There is increased recognition of the potential side effects of treatment and their impact on the patient’s quality of life. Surgery and radiation therapy can have significant side effects, such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. Active surveillance spares men from these side effects unless treatment becomes necessary.
Greater access to information and increased patient engagement in decision-making processes have also contributed to the shift toward active surveillance. Men are becoming more proactive about their health and informed about available options, enabling them to make choices that align with their health goals and quality of life considerations.
Rethinking Prostate Cancer Screening
This deep dive into overdiagnosis and overtreatment is not intended to create fear or skepticism about prostate cancer screening. It is, instead, an invitation to reconsider our understanding of screening and its implications. Every man’s journey with prostate cancer screening is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
In the next section, we’ll demystify the elusive nature of the PSA test.
The Elusiveness of the PSA Test: Unraveling the Enigma
Many may regard the PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) test as a straightforward indicator of prostate cancer. However, the reality of this enigmatic test is much more complex. Let’s unravel some of the intriguing aspects of this elusive test.
A Not-So-Specific Antigen
One common misconception about the PSA test is that it’s a definitive test for prostate cancer. The reality, though, is a bit different. PSA is a protein produced by both normal and cancerous cells in the prostate. Elevated levels of PSA can indicate prostate cancer, but it’s not exclusive to it.
The False Alarm: False Positives
The National Cancer Institute estimates that in men aged 50 to 69 years, for every 1,000 men who have a PSA test, about 120 will have an abnormal result, and 100 of those will have a biopsy. Out of those, about 25 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. So, around 75 men will have had a biopsy, an invasive procedure with its own risks, based on a false-positive PSA test. This opens up a can of anxiety-related worms, unnecessary procedures, and potential complications.
The Phantom Menace: False Negatives
Just as the PSA test can cry wolf when there’s no cause for alarm, it can also give you a false sense of security. PSA levels can sometimes fall within the normal range, even when prostate cancer is present. This leads to false negatives, where a test result suggests that you are healthy when you are not.
PSA: A Piece of the Puzzle
While the PSA test can provide valuable information, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. It should be considered alongside other factors, such as age, family history, race, and digital rectal exam (DRE) results. More recent advancements include PSA velocity (rate of change in PSA levels over time) and PSA density (PSA concentration in the prostate), providing a more nuanced understanding of the risk.
The Emotional Toll of Screening: A Journey of Fear, Relief, and Sometimes, Regret
The psychological impact of prostate cancer screening is often underappreciated, hidden beneath the more technical discussions of PSA levels and biopsy results. When one decides to undergo prostate cancer screening, a shadow of uncertainty emerges. “What if my test results are abnormal?” “What if I have cancer?” These questions can haunt a man’s thoughts, causing significant stress and anxiety.
The Roller Coaster of Emotions
Following the PSA test, one might experience relief if the results are typical or fear if they’re not. The latter can launch a man into a whirlwind of further testing, biopsies, and waiting, amplifying the emotional stress. The anxious anticipation of biopsy results, the relief or despair following the results, and the ongoing uncertainty can take a significant toll.
The Burden of Decision Making
The emotional journey doesn’t stop there for those diagnosed with prostate cancer. Men often face difficult treatment decisions, each with potential risks and side effects. Opting for ‘watchful waiting’ or ‘active surveillance’ brings anxiety, while choosing surgery or radiation therapy has physical implications that can lead to emotional stress.
The Emotional Aftermath
And let’s not forget those who go through the ordeal of unnecessary biopsies based on false-positive PSA tests or the men who undergo treatment for cancer that would never have caused symptoms – the overdiagnosed and overtreated. The relief of not having threatening cancer might be overshadowed by the emotional toll and regret of unnecessarily going through an invasive procedure.
Coping with the Emotional Toll
Screening for prostate cancer is not just a physical issue; it’s a profoundly emotional one. Recognizing and addressing the emotional impacts of screening is crucial. Screening should be an informed decision made by each man in consultation with his doctor, understanding the potential physical implications and the emotional journey it may entail.
The Influence of Age: A Delicate Balance
Age is more than just a number for prostate cancer screening and treatment. It’s a critical factor that weighs heavily, tipping the scales towards or away from screening. Let’s delve into the complicated relationship between age and prostate cancer.
Screening Recommendations and Age: A Complex Relationship
Health organizations have different recommendations about when and whether to undergo prostate cancer screening. Most of them, however, agree on one point: age is a significant consideration.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), for example, recommends that men aged 55 to 69 decide about prostate cancer screening after discussing the potential benefits and harms with their clinician. For men 70 and older, they advise against routine screening.
The Reasoning Behind the Age Guidelines
The rationale for these age-related recommendations lies in the nature of prostate cancer and the limitations of screening and treatment. Prostate cancer is often slow-growing, and the benefits of detecting it early might not manifest until years later.
In older men, especially those with limited life expectancy due to other health conditions, the benefits of early detection are less likely to outweigh the potential harms of screening, diagnosis, and treatment. They are more likely to die with prostate cancer than from it.
Age and Treatment Decisions
Age also significantly affects treatment decisions after a prostate cancer diagnosis. The potential side effects of treatment, such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction, can dramatically impact a man’s quality of life. Older men, or those with significant coexisting health conditions, may choose to forego aggressive treatments to avoid these side effects.
The key takeaway is that age is an essential factor, but it’s not the only one. Each man’s decision about prostate cancer screening should be personalized, considering his overall health, life expectancy, personal preferences, and understanding of the potential benefits and harms.
Navigating the murky waters of prostate cancer screening is no easy task. Yet, it’s a journey many men will have to embark upon, and understanding the complexities can make the voyage less daunting.
False positives, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment may seem like obscure concepts, but they’re part and parcel of the prostate cancer screening narrative. They remind us that the PSA test, while a valuable tool, isn’t infallible. It’s one component of a multifaceted process that should be individualized to each man’s health status and personal preferences.
The emotional toll of screening and the role of age further complicate the narrative. They highlight that the decision to screen isn’t just a clinical but a deeply personal one.
Remember, it’s your health, your body, and ultimately, your decision. So, take the reins, ask questions, seek second opinions if needed, and ensure that the decisions made align with what’s most important to you. Stay informed, stay proactive, and above all, stay healthy.
In our future posts, we’ll continue to demystify complex health topics, shedding light on the issues that matter most to you. So, stay tuned, and let’s navigate the intricacies of health together. Until then, be well!
- Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) Test (National Cancer Institute): https://www.cancer.gov/types/prostate/psa-fact-sheet
- Welch HG, Albertsen PC. Prostate Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment After the Introduction of Prostate-Specific Antigen Screening: 1986-2005. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2009;101(19):1325-1329. DOI: 10.1093/jnci/djp278.
- Prostate Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Patient Version (National Cancer Institute): https://www.cancer.gov/types/prostate/patient/prostate-screening-pdq
- Moyer VA; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for Prostate Cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(2):120-134. DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-157-2-201207170-00459.
- Loeb S, Bjurlin MA, Nicholson J, et al. Overdiagnosis and overtreatment of prostate cancer. European Urology. 2014;65(6):1046-1055. DOI: 10.1016/j.eururo.2013.12.062.
- Penson DF, Litwin MS, Aaronson NK. Health related quality of life in men with prostate cancer. Journal of Urology. 2003;169(5):1653-1661. DOI: 10.1097/01.ju.0000055547.12579.e7.
- Bell K, et al. ‘Prostate cancer overdiagnosis: A narrative review of the causes, trends and potential solutions.’ British Journal of General Practice. 2021; 71 (702): e10-e18. DOI: 10.3399/BJGP.2020.0946.
- Carter HB, Albertsen PC, Barry MJ, et al. Early Detection of Prostate Cancer: AUA Guideline. Journal of Urology. 2013;190(2):419-426. DOI: 10.1016/j.juro.2013.04.119.
- Qaseem A, Barry MJ, Denberg TD, et al. Screening for prostate cancer: a guidance statement from the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013;158(10):761-769. DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-158-10-201305210-00633.
- PSA velocity and doubling time in diagnosis and prognosis of prostate cancer. British Journal of Medical and Surgical Urology. 2011; 4(2): 60–66. DOI: 10.1016/j.bjmsu.2010.09.005.