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Prostate Cancer Screening: Should You Have a PSA Test?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Your optionsPSA Testing

  • Have a PSA blood test to check for prostate cancer.
  • Do not have a PSA blood test to check for prostate cancer.

This information is for men in their 50s and 60s.

Key points to remember

  • PSA tests can help find some prostate cancers early, when the cancer may be easier to treat. The largest study of prostate cancer screening so far showed that PSA testing may prevent a small number of men from dying of prostate cancer.
  • A high PSA level can have many causes, including an enlarged prostate, an infection, or, less often, prostate cancer. A high PSA can cause a lot of worry and lead to more tests. But most high PSA test results will not turn out to be from cancer.
  • Many cancers found by PSA tests would not have caused a problem if they had not been found through screening. But when they are found, they often get treated with surgery to remove the prostate or with radiation. These cancer treatments may not have been needed. And they can have serious side effects, such as urinary, bowel, and erection problems.
  • Many prostate cancers grow slowly. This means that many men with prostate cancer will die of something else before their prostate cancer advances enough to cause any problems.
  • With faster-growing prostate cancers, finding the cancer early may not help you live longer. Some prostate cancers will be fatal no matter when they are found or how they are treated.

FAQ's

What is prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the tissues of the prostate gland. It is the second most common cancer in men. Most men who get it are older than 65.

Early prostate cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms. When prostate cancer is found before it has spread outside the prostate gland, a man's options include active surveillance, surgery to remove the prostate, or radiation. If a prostate cancer grows or spreads, symptoms may develop, including urinary problems (such as blood in the urine) and bone pain.

Many prostate cancers grow slowly. This means that many men with prostate cancer will die of something else before their prostate cancer advances enough to cause any problems. With faster-growing prostate cancers, finding the cancer early may not help you live longer. Some prostate cancers will be fatal no matter when they're found or how they are treated.

What is a PSA Test?

The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is a blood test that measures your level of PSA. The PSA test is usually done to screen for prostate cancer in men who have no symptoms. PSA is released into a man's blood by the cells of his prostate gland. A PSA test can show if you have normal or high amounts of PSA in your blood. A high PSA level can have many causes, including an enlarged prostate, an infection, or, less often, prostate cancer.

What are the benefits of having a PSA test?

PSA tests can help find some prostate cancers early. But it may not help you live any longer than if you had no screening.

What are the risks of having a PSA test?

False-positive results
Often the PSA test can show high levels of PSA that aren't caused by cancer (called a false-positive).

If your PSA test is high, you may need more tests—like a prostate biopsy—to check for prostate cancer. These tests can be harmful. For example, prostate biopsies can cause infections. For a few men, these infections are very serious. These tests can also cause a lot of worry.

False-negative results
PSA tests may miss some cancers. Not all prostate cancers cause a high PSA, so some PSA tests will be normal when there is cancer (called a false-negative). But the more serious prostate cancers usually do cause a high PSA.

Overdiagnosis
A PSA test can find cancers that would not have caused a problem (called overdiagnosis). You might have this type of cancer, but a PSA test can't tell if the cancer is harmless. So you may get cancer treatment—including surgery or radiation—that you don't need.

What does a PSA test NOT tell you?

A PSA test alone can't tell if you have prostate cancer. This test only shows the level of your PSA. And a PSA test can't tell why your level is high. A biopsy is the only way to check for prostate cancer.

The PSA test also does not tell you if a cancer is growing fast or slow. Most prostate cancers that are found early are slow-growing. But a few prostate cancers grow fast.

What do the numbers tell us about the benefits and risks of PSA testing?

Examples of outcomes with and without PSA testing in men ages 55 to 69footnote1*
Outcomes Without PSA testing With PSA testing
Prostate cancer deaths in men who were followed over a 13-year period About 6 out of 1,000 men will die of prostate cancer. About 5 out of 1,000 men will die of prostate cancer.
Prostate cancers found in men who were followed over a 13-year period About 68 out of 1,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. About 102 out of 1,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Risk of receiving treatment you don't need None About 27 out of 1,000 men may get treatment they don't need.
High PSA results that are not cancer (false-positives)footnote1footnote2*
High PSA results that are not cancer (false-positives) Out of 1,000 PSA tests, about 170 will find a high PSA level. Out of those 170 high PSA test results, about 129 will not be from cancer, while about 41 of the 170 will be from cancer.

These numbers are from the largest, longest study done so far on the value of PSA testing. The study was done in Europe and did not include African-American men, who are at higher risk of prostate cancer.footnote1 A smaller study done in the United States did not find that PSA testing saved lives.footnote3

*Based on the best available evidence (evidence quality: moderate to high)

Benefits

The quality of the evidence about PSA benefits is moderate.

The largest study of prostate cancer screening so far showed that out of a group of 1,000 men ages 55 to 69 who have PSA testing and are followed over a 13-year period:footnote1

  • Prostate cancer is more likely to be found with PSA testing than without PSA testing. About 102 out of 1,000 men who are screened will be diagnosed with prostate cancer versus about 68 out of 1,000 men who are not screened.
  • PSA testing may prevent a small number of men from dying of prostate cancer. About 5 out of 1,000 men who are screened will die of prostate cancer versus about 6 out of 1,000 men who are not screened.

Risks

The quality of the evidence about PSA risks is high.

Many cancers found by PSA tests would not have caused a problem if they had not been found through screening. But when cancers are found, they often get treated with surgery to remove the prostate or with radiation. These cancer treatments may not have been needed. And they can have serious side effects, such as urinary, bowel, and erection problems.

Take a group of 1,000 men ages 55 to 69 who have PSA tests. About 27 of these men may get cancer treatment they don't need.footnote1

PSA tests can show high levels of PSA that aren't caused by cancer (called a false-positive). This means you may need more tests—like a prostate biopsy—to check for prostate cancer. These tests can be harmful. For example, prostate biopsies can cause infections. For a few men, these infections are very serious. These tests can also cause a lot of worry.

Out of 1,000 PSA tests, about 170 will find a high PSA level. But most high PSA levels are not caused by cancer. Out of those 170 high PSA test results, about 129 will not be from cancer, while about 41 of the 170 will be from cancer.footnote1footnote2

Understanding the evidence

Some evidence is better than other evidence. Evidence comes from studies that look at how well treatments and tests work and how safe they are. For many reasons, some studies are more reliable than others. The better the evidence is—the higher its quality—the more we can trust it.

The information shown here is based on the best available evidence.footnote1footnote2 The evidence is rated using four quality levels: high, moderate, borderline, and inconclusive.

Another thing to understand is that the evidence can't predict what's going to happen in your case. When evidence tells us that 2 out of 100 people who have a certain test or treatment will have a certain result and that 98 out of 100 will not, there's no way to know if you will be one of the 2 or one of the 98.

What do experts recommend?

Experts have set up guidelines to advise men about prostate cancer screening.

These guidelines are based on a man's age and his risk of getting prostate cancer. Some things that put men at a higher risk include:

  • Being African American.
  • Having a father or brother who had prostate cancer before age 65.
  • Knowing that a gene change, such as BRCA, runs in your family.

Most experts agree on the following age-related recommendations:

Age 40 and under:

Men aren't advised to get the PSA test, since testing in this age group causes more harm than good.

Age 40 to 54 years:
Men at average risk aren't advised to get the PSA test, since testing in this age group causes more harm than good.
Around age 45, men at higher risk may want to talk with their doctors about the pros and cons of testing before deciding whether to get the PSA test.

Age 55 to 69 years:
Men who are thinking about getting the PSA test are advised to talk with their doctors about the pros and cons of testing before deciding whether to get the PSA test.

Ages 70 and older:

Most men aren't advised to get the PSA test, since testing in this age group causes more harm than good.

Why might your doctor offer a PSA test for you?

Your doctor may discuss PSA screening if you are in your 50s or 60s. If you're at high risk, your doctor may discuss screening sooner. Some things may put you at high risk for prostate cancer, such as being African American, having a family history of prostate cancer, or carrying gene changes thought to increase the risk for prostate cancer. If you don't already know your prostate cancer risk, you can ask your doctor.

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