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The Must-knows of Prostate Cancer Screenings

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The Must-knows of Prostate Cancer Screenings

Jun 12, 2019

If you’re a man and live long enough, you’re likely to get prostate cancer. But when should you get screened and what does a positive screening mean? Dr. Jonathan Tward from Huntsman Cancer Institute tells you the effectiveness of prostate cancer screening. He also discusses the potential downsides of early screening and why many men go for years without knowing they have prostate cancer.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: If you're a man and you live long enough, prostate cancer is going to likely be part of your life. It can be really confusing. When do you get screened? What does a positive screening mean? What should you do then? We're going to talk about these things and more coming up next on The Scope.

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Interviewer: Prostate cancer is one of the most common men's cancers, and although it likely won't kill you if you're diagnosed it can have very negative impacts on your quality of life. That's why you should get screened. Learn about the facts now with Dr. Jonathan Tward from Huntsman Cancer Institute. He's a prostate cancer expert. Let's start out with how effective is prostate cancer screening?

Dr. Jonathan Tward: We think that we are usually picking up the diagnosis 10 to 15 years in advance of when someone might feel a problem.

Interviewer: Oh, really? So, it's a cancer that's easily detectable?

Dr. Jonathan Tward: Easily detectable, although even that is controversial. We do have a screening test that helps guide us on whether or not we should do additional testing like a biopsy to prove it, but we are in fact able very early on to detect prostate cancer.

Interviewer: Is there a certain age where I should start becoming more aware of it?

Dr. Jonathan Tward: Guidelines are kind of evolving right now in terms of what age people should really start concerning themselves with thinking more about it. As a general principle, we think that around age 50 men should start bringing it to the forefront of their thinking. Digital rectal examinations are one common way to screen for this cancer. The PSA test is another thing. We usually start advocating that at age 50. What is interesting is that if you look at autopsies on people, starting at age 30 10% of people will have prostate cancer in their prostate and won't know it. This is if you just happen to autopsy someone killed for another reason. The risk goes up by about 10% per decade of life, so by age 50 one would expect 30% of people to have cancer in their prostate, and it goes up by 10% each decade. Once you are in your 60s or 70s you almost have a greater than 50/50 chance that you harbor this cancer. Many of these cancers will not require treatment. Some of them can be safely observed. This is part of the problem with screening. We often detect cancers in men that can be safely observed and sometimes over-treat them, and on the opposite side of the coin we often pick up very aggressive cancers that absolutely need to be treated to preserve quality of life such as urologic bother.

Interviewer: It sounds like you could have prostate cancer and it's not a problem.

Dr. Jonathan Tward: That's true. In fact, the vast majority of people being diagnosed today have no physical symptoms of the cancer because it is being detected with this 10 to 15 year lead time from the PSA test.

Interviewer: So could I go my whole life having prostate cancer but never needing treatment because it just never turns into anything?

Dr. Jonathan Tward: Chances are you will do that.

Interviewer: Wow. Really? Should that concern me?

Dr. Jonathan Tward: Well, I do think it should concern you. It sort of goes back to this issue of one in six men are being diagnosed with cancer. But, if you want to talk about it from a different kind of number, we diagnose in the United States approximately 250,000 men with cancer each year. Maybe about 35,000 die of the disease. What that implies is that the majority of people are either cured or able to live well with their cancer although they might have to live with side effects of their treatments, and maybe only 10% or 15% actually die of the disease. But, part of the problem with prostate cancer, and I think the confusion especially when it talks to should we screen and should we treat it, is when you look at these statistics, death from prostate cancer, it's clear that we're very good at keeping men alive with prostate cancer. I argue that the reason we should try to screen it, and treat it, and cure it is to try to prevent men from living a lifetime of side effects from the cancer or from the treatment. To me that is really the utility in identifying this cancer.

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updated: June 12, 2019
originally published: December 6, 2013