By Mark Scholz
Prostate cancer is highly curable when it is identified at an early stage. The PSA blood test, although not foolproof, improves the chance of arresting cancer while it’s still contained within the prostate. Detecting prostate cancer early gives men the power to choose a variety of treatment alternatives.
Surprisingly, there are arguments against PSA testing. Since some types of prostate cancer are low-grade, and therefore slow growing, diagnosing them, especially in older men, may only cause unnecessary fear and anxiety. Even more disturbing, men with this low-grade, non-aggressive type may be encouraged to undergo unnecessary treatment that in many cases leads to urinary incontinence or impotence.
PSA elevations also can occur from non-cancerous conditions. Prostate infections, prostate enlargement, and even recent sexual activity may cause the PSA to rise temporarily. If none of these reasons can account for an abnormally elevated PSA level, an assortment of scans, blood, and urine tests may be required to figure out what is actually causing the elevation.
So we have a dilemma. Many men are given a PSA blood test without first being educated about its limitations. Advance discussions about the implications of an abnormal PSA and prostate cancer diagnosis almost never occur. This is no small issue. Even though low-grade prostate cancer is incredibly common, many doctors are still unaware that recent studies show that low-grade prostate cancer can be safely monitored. Instead, when the diagnosis is made, most men are carted off to have radical surgery.
Despite all these daunting issues, I still believe that PSA screening is appropriate so long as men are informed about its limitations, and so long as the doctors who administer the test are well versed in the latest studies. In my next blog I will be addressing an even bigger question—whether to have a prostate biopsy when an elevated PSA occurs.
A board-certified medical oncologist, Mark C. Scholz, MD, serves as medical director of Prostate Oncology Specialists Inc. in Marina del Rey, CA, a medical practice exclusively focused on prostate cancer. He is also the executive director of the Prostate Cancer Research Institute. He received his medical degree from Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Dr. Scholz completed his Internal Medicine internship and Medical Oncology fellowship at University of Southern California Medical Center. He is the co-author of the book Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers: No More Unnecessary Biopsies, Radical Treatment or Loss of Potency. He is a strong advocate for patient empowerment.