March 12, 2012 -- Circumcision may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer, according to a new study published in the journal Cancer.
A new analysis of 3,399 men found that those who were circumcised before their first sexual encounter saw a "significant" 15 percent decreased risk of developing prostate cancer compared with men who were uncircumcised or circumcised after the first time they had sex.
Prior research has found that men who are circumcised are at lower risk of infections like HPV and herpes. Since infections have been linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer, researchers said the findings fit in with past research on the subject.
"This observation is consistent with accumulating evidence that infection [and] inflammation in the prostate may play a role in the development of this disease," said Janet Stanford, lead author of the study and co-head of the program in Prostate Cancer Research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Researcher Center in Seattle.
"Our study tested the hypothesis that men who are circumcised prior to becoming sexually active may be at reduced risk of prostate cancer," said Stanford. "This follows upon the assumption that circumcision may reduce infection [and] inflammation in the prostate by reducing exposure to infectious agents that gain access to prostate tissue where they induce an inflammatory response."
Researchers said STDs cause chronic inflammation in the penis, and basic hygiene is extraordinarily important in preventing infection in men who have not been circumcised, said Dr. Durado Brooks, director of prostate and colorectoral cancers at the American Cancer Society.
"Foreskin can act as a breeding ground for infection, so it's important to wash under the foreskin after any kind of sexual activity," said Brooks.
Nevertheless, circumcision, where the foreskin of the penis is surgically removed, has been a topic of hot debate in recent years. Lloyd Schofield, a San Francisco man who spearheaded a movement to ban circumcision in the Bay Area, began researching the procedure several years ago and found a local group of "intactivists," or people who believe that infant boys have the right to keep their foreskin intact.
"The foreskin is there for a reason," Schofield said last year. "It's not a birth defect. It serves an important function in a man's life, and nobody has a right to perform unnecessary surgery on another human being."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of circumcision among baby boys in the United States seems to be declining. The government agency found that the incidence of circumcision declined from 56 percent in 2006 to 32.5 percent in 2009. But those numbers did not include procedures performed outside of hospitals, including Jewish rituals that are usually performed in the home, or circumcisions that were not reimbursed by insurance.
While the procedure is usually performed for religious or cultural reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that, while there is some scientific evidence that demonstrates potential medical benefits of male circumcision, the data are not sufficient to recommend routine circumcision in newborns.
"No medical association promotes circumcision," said Schofield. "If there was sound and repeated scientific evidence, there'd be a medical association promoting it."
While the study raises some questions about circumcision and prostate cancer development, more research than an observational study is needed.
"The more we learn about prostate cancer, the more we see it is a multi-factorial disease," said Brooks. "This is looking at an issue 50 years down the line after getting circumcised, and parents should keep in mind cultural beliefs and concerns more than cancer risk when making the decision."