Should Men Get Prostate Cancer Screening?

Should Men Get Prostate Cancer Screening?

At 62 years old, Eric Larson is among an age group that many health organizations recommend get annual prostate test to detect signs of prostate cancer.

However, Larson opts out of the screening year after year.

The reason, he said, is that studies have not demonstrated that "there is any benefit [to the prostate specific antigen screening] and there is certainly a good chance the PSA [prostate specific antigen] screening leads to procedures with complications and without benefit."

And Larson should know -- he is a physician who serves as the executive director of the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle Wash.

Like many other doctors, Larson has been waiting for years to see the results of two large trials in the United States and Europe to determine whether the screening for prostate cancer actually saves lives.

Now that the day has come and results are out, many doctors are left with more questions than answers on the benefits of regular prostate specific antigen screenings -- and Larson will continue to opt out of his own screenings.

Researchers for a U.S. study came to the conclusion that, after seven to 10 years of follow-up, men who got the PSA test were no less likely to die from prostate cancer than men who did not. A separate European study, on the other hand, suggested a benefit to getting tested -- albeit a disappointingly small one.

But perhaps the biggest burden of these inconclusive results lie with men Larson's age who are not doctors and are ultimately left to decide whether the PSA screenings are worthwhile to them. Worse, a positive result could force these men into an even more grueling decision -- what to do if the screening results show elevated prostate specific antigen levels.

Simple Test, Difficult Questions

The drawbacks to the PSA screenings are fairly well understood: Though the test can help to predict a man's likelihood of having prostate cancer, it cannot provide any information on how aggressive or serious the cancer is.

"The challenge we have right now is that when we find prostate cancer, we don't know whether it's a killer cancer or what has been termed a 'toothless lion' type of cancer -- one that a man will die with, not of," Dr. Gerald Andriole said during National Cancer Institute news conference Tuesday.

Get Your Questions Answered at the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Prostate Cancer Center

"And we've made the mistake of tending to treat all of these patients aggressively," said Andriole, chief of the Division of Urologic Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

In order to avoid the pain, trauma and side effects of treating a non life-threatening, slow-growing cancer many experts recommend that patients with elevated PSA levels take a "watchful waiting" approach.

"My mantra is 'overdiagnosis doesn't have to result in overtreatment,'" said Dr. Mitchell Benson, a professor and chairman of the Department of Urology and Urologist-in-Chief at Columbia University Medical Center. "I think it's absolutely safe to watch people. This is increasingly being shown to be valid. [And] no treatment now doesn't mean no treatment later."

ABC News medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson said patients should be fully prepared to have a lengthy discussion with their doctors about treatment options should the screening reveal elevated PSA levels.

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