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Prostate Cancer: Early Detection

Screening means checking for a health problem before a person has symptoms. This can sometimes help find diseases, like certain cancers, early. This can lead to early treatment. Finding and treating cancer early, when it's small and hasn't spread, may improve the chance that treatment will work better.

But it's still not clear exactly how helpful screening is for prostate cancer. Learning more about prostate cancer screening and the risks and benefits of it can help you decide if it's right for you.

Screening tests for prostate cancer

Two screening tests can be used to check for prostate cancer:

  • PSA blood test. This test looks at the level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood. PSA is a protein made by prostate cells. A high level means it's more likely that a man has prostate cancer.

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE). In this exam, the healthcare provider puts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to check the size of the prostate and feel for lumps or abnormal areas.

Abnormal results on these screening tests can mean that a man might have prostate cancer, but these tests can’t diagnose prostate cancer. A prostate biopsy is needed to be sure. A biopsy is when tiny pieces of tissue are taken out and tested in a lab.

Cross section side view of male pelvis. Healthcare provider's gloved finger is inserted in rectum to feel prostate through rectal wall.
The DRE takes just a few seconds.

Why prostate cancer screening is controversial

Not all healthcare providers agree that prostate cancer screening is useful. This is because:

  • PSA test results aren't always right. In some cases, the PSA test can have false-positive or false-negative results. A false positive means that test results show that a man may have cancer when he doesn’t. This can lead to more tests, which can lead to stress and possible harm from the tests. A false negative means that test results don’t show cancer when a man has it. This can mean you don't get the extra tests or treatment you need.

  • Finding prostate cancer early may not be helpful. Even if screening does help find cancer early, prostate cancer often grows slowly and mostly affects older men. This means that finding it early may not lead to a longer life. Many men with prostate cancer die years later of other causes without having symptoms or being treated for their prostate cancer.

    But healthcare providers can’t always tell which cancers are likely to grow fast and need to be treated. And even if a cancer is slow-growing, a man may not be OK with living with cancer. He may want it treated. Treatment for prostate cancer can have very serious side effects, such as erection problems and lack of urine control (incontinence).

Research in progress

It’s not yet clear if the benefits of screening for prostate cancer are greater than the possible harms. Research studies have found that prostate cancer screening can detect more cancers. But it's still not clear if screening saves enough lives to outweigh the harm treatment can cause.

Researchers are looking for better ways to know:

  • Which prostate cancers need to be treated

  • Which prostate cancers can be safely watched instead

At this time there are no standard tests that give this kind of information.

What expert groups recommend

Most expert medical groups agree that routine prostate cancer screening should not be done for all men. But the advice varies between groups. For example:

  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says that men ages 55 to 69 should talk with their healthcare providers about the possible benefits and harms of screening in order to make an informed decision.

  • American Urological Association says that men ages 55 to 69 at average risk for prostate cancer talk with their healthcare providers about being screened. Men at higher risk could have this talk earlier.

  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network says that men talk with their healthcare providers about the pros and cons of screening starting at age 45. Men at high risk should have this talk at age 40.

  • American Society of Clinical Oncology says that men expected to live at least 10 years should talk with their healthcare providers about whether or not screening is right for them.

  • American Cancer Society (ACS) says that men should talk with their healthcare providers about the pros and cons of screening. They advise having this talk at age 50 for men at average risk who are expected to live for 10 years or more. Men who are black of African ancestry or who have a father or brother (first-degree relative) diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65 are at high risk and should have this talk at age 45. ACS advises men to discuss screening at age 40 if they are at even higher risk. This means having more than 1 first-degree relative diagnosed before age 65.

Making a decision

All the groups advise that men talk with their healthcare providers to make an informed decision about screening. If you're thinking about being screened, talk with your healthcare provider about:

  • Your personal risk of prostate cancer based on your age, race, and family history

  • What the screening test results can and can’t tell you

  • What the next steps would be if the test results show you might have prostate cancer

  • What your options would be for treating or not treating right away

  • What the treatment options are if you were to have treatment, including the benefits and possible harms of different treatments

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.