Prostate cancer is the one of the most treatable cancers in men —as long as it’s detected early enough. The best way to do that is through regular screening.
But knowing when to start and how often to get it done can be confusing. The recommended schedule for prostate cancer screening has been the subject of intense debate over the last few years. Some expert bodies, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, have even changed their position on how frequently, and at what ages, men should be tested.
“If you’re a man in your 50s or 60s, go get screened,” says Josh M. Randall, MD, a board-certified urologist at Mission Hospital. “And repeat the screening every year, as part of your routine annual physical exam, or as often as your doctor recommends.”
Prostate cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in men, Dr. Randall explains. About one in five men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime.
“Each year, more than 30,000 American men die from prostate cancer,” Dr. Randall says. “Early screening would save many of those lives.”
What is Prostate Cancer Screening?
A key component of preventive medicine, screening involves looking for a disease (like cancer) before a person has any symptoms. If abnormal tissue is found early enough, it is often easier to treat. By the time actual symptoms develop, it can be too late to halt the spread of the disease. At the very least, earlier detection of cancer means easier, less invasive treatment options with a higher chance of success.
The primary aims of prostate cancer screening are early detection, reducing the number of deaths from prostate cancer and catching cancers before they spread to other parts of the body.
Prostate cancer screening is typically conducted by performing two easy and important tests:
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. A simple lab test that measures PSA levels in the blood.
- Digital rectal exam. A physical examination in which a doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to inspect the prostate for lumps or other suspicious signs.
Dr. Randall offers important advice regarding PSA tests.
"It is important to note that elevated levels of PSA can also occur from normal growth of the prostate and inflammation or infection of the prostate—and not necessarily from cancer. Furthermore, even an elevated PSA level does not mean that a patient is at risk of dying from prostate cancer.”
Most early-detected cases of prostate cancer have a good prognosis, some even without treatment. “Many of my prostate cancer patients go years, decades, or even a lifetime without having to begin therapy,” he says. “Their slow-growing cancer has never progressed to the therapeutic stage—and with active surveillance by our care team, we just make sure we keep on top of it.”
However, some cases are aggressive—and only regular screenings can help detect aggressive cancers before it’s too late.
Dr. Randall says it’s important for men to thoroughly discuss test results and their options with their doctors.
“Every patient is different—and every decision is patient-specific,” Dr. Randall advises. “A man with a prostate cancer diagnosis might choose to defer treatment—opting instead for a ‘watchful waiting’ approach. But we can only make a good decision if we have all the facts. And we only have all the facts if a patient has regular screenings.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.