Prostate cancer screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. The doctor can suggest it but it does not necessarily mean that a person is having cancer. It can be done on regular basis. If the cancer is found at an early stage, before it begun to spread it can be more easily and effectively treated.
Prostate cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the prostate, the gland in the male reproductive system located just below the bladder (the organ that collects and empties urine) and in front of the rectum (the lower part of the intestine).
Usually, it is about the size of the walnut but as men age, the prostate may get bigger and cause problems with the blocking of the urine flow and with sexual function. This is called a benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and it is not cancer and it can be corrected with surgery but may have similar symptoms as prostate cancer.
Risk factors for prostate cancer include men 50 years of age or older, African-American men, men who have a brother, father or son who had prostate cancer and men who eat a diet high in fat or drinking alcoholic beverages.
Screening tests for prostate cancer are under study and there are screening clinical trials taking place in many parts of the country so a person can get information about ongoing clinical trials is on the NCI Web site.
Available screening tests include:
- Digital rectal exam (DRE) is an exam during which a doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the lower part of the rectum to feel the prostate for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is a test that measures the level of PSA in the blood which is elevated in men who have prostate cancer, but it can also be high in men who have an infection or inflammation of the prostate or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
The screening tests have risks. These include that finding prostate cancer may not improve health or help a man live longer if cancer is already spread to the area outside of the prostate or to other places in the body.
Also, some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening and if found by a screening test, cancer may be treated (this is called overdiagnosis) but it is unknown if the treatment will help men live longer and treatment like radiation therapy have serious side effects.
Some studies also show that patients with prostate cancer have a higher risk of death from cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease or suicide, especially in the first year after diagnosis.
A biopsy of the prostate is done when a PSA test is higher than normal. This can cause complications like:
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Urinary tract infection
Screening test results can have false-negative test results so a man who receives this kind of result can delay seeking medical care even if he has symptoms. Also, false-positive results can occur so this can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests, like a biopsy which also have risks.