A regularly used prostate cancer test could actually be causing more harm than good to men across the UK, a new Cancer Research UK-funded study has found.
Currently, the NHS provide no screening for prostate cancer, the most common form of cancer in men.
But a blood test called a PSA (prostate specific antigen) test is available. It can be requested by men over the age of 50 who have no symptoms of the cancer.
However, the findings of the new Cancer Research UK study – which saw scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Bristol look at 400,000 men – suggest that it may well be more harmful for men than helpful.
But why? According to the study, the test – which measures the level of PSA in a man’s blood sample – can be unreliable.
That’s because a high level of PSA can indicate cancer in the prostate, but can also be caused by various other non-serious factors such as a urinary tract infection, recent stimulation or vigorous exercise. Certain medications can also raise PSA levels.
Plus, it’s normal for most men to have at least some PSA in their blood.
The study looked at 600 practices across the UK, some of which were offering male patients with no symptoms the PSA test, and some of which weren’t.
In the practises where the test was given, more cases of prostate cancer were detected. But, say Cancer Research UK, the men who had the test were “no less likely to die of prostate cancer than the men that hadn’t had it.”
According to researchers then, the one-off test doesn’t actually save more men’s lives. And the reason? Because often, the test will pick up cancers that will never have become harmful, but may not pick up cancers that actually are more aggressive.
The resulting treatment for men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer can also be distressing – but it’s treatment that may not have been needed.
Professor Richard Martin, who led the study, admitted that the consequences of giving men who have no symptoms the test “risks diagnosing more men with a cancer that would never have caused them any harm”.
He added: “In some cases, this might mean men unnecessarily living with the stigma of having a cancer and the side effects of treatment that was not needed, such as incontinence and erectile dysfunction, for many years, maybe even decades.”
The study concluded that better screening and treatment is needed for the men’s cancer – in particular a way of telling the difference between potentially aggressive cancer and cancer that wouldn’t become harmful.
So what is advised by health experts? Professor Martin says: “We’re not saying that screening for prostate cancer should be discounted. What we’re saying is PSA testing for prostate cancer is not the answer.”
However, if you are presenting symptoms or notice anything out of the ordinary, it’s always best to get checked out.
Prostate cancer symptoms can include blood in urine, frequent urination, a weakened urine flow, or erectile dysfunction, among other things.
If you are at all concerned, consult your local GP.