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Task Force now believes some men should consider prostate cancer screening

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Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death among American men, after heart disease.

Yet ever since the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening was approved by the FDA in 1986, there has been a debate in the health-care community about the efficacy of the test. The American Urological Association had until 2013 had recommended routine testing but did an about-face not long after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended against regular screening.

The Task Force — and independent, volunteer panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine — concluded in 2012 that there was “moderate certainty” the benefits of the screening did not outweigh the potential harms. The biggest risks included a false positive that leads to a biopsy that could cause infection, pain and bleeding, as well as surgery and radiation that can provoke impotence or problems with the bladder or bowels.

But the Task Force is now recommending that men aged 55 to 69 talk to their physicians about whether to get the test. New evidence indicates screening in this age group can reduce the risk of metastatic cancer and the chance of dying from prostate cancer.

“Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers to affect men and the decision whether to be screened is complex,” said Task Force vice chair Alex H. Krist, MD. “Men should discuss the benefits and harms of screening with their doctor, so they can make the best choice for themselves based on their values and individual circumstances.”

Stanford Health Policy’s Douglas K. Owens, director of the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care Outcomes and Research, said there is also new information on active surveillance — a way of monitoring prostate cancer that may allow some men with low-risk prostate cancers to delay or, in some cases, avoid treatment with radiation or surgery.

Active surveillance, he said, has become a more common choice for men with lower-risk prostate cancer over the past several years and may reduce the chance of overtreatment.

“For men who are more interested in the small potential benefit and willing to accept the potential harms, screening may be the right choice for them,” said Owens, MD, a professor at Stanford Medicine and another vice chair of the Task Force. “Men who place more value on avoiding the potential harms may choose not to be screened.”

The Task Force still recommends men 70 and older do not get the test as a matter of routine.

The panel released its recommendation on the Task Force website on May 8. The final recommendation and evidence reviews were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), along with several editorials.

The guidelines issued by the 16-member Task Force impact virtually every primary care patient and practice in the United States. They make letter grade recommendations and have now bumped the “D” against screening up to a “C,” which recommends screening decisions for prostate cancer be based on professional judgment and patient preference. 

The new recommendation now aligns with those of the American Cancer Society and the American Urological Association. Peter R. Carroll, MD, writes in an accompanying editorial in JAMA that the final recommendation by the Task Force “has restarted a national discussion on prostate cancer early detection.”

“The Task Force deserves credit for this more balanced, fairer approach,” said Carroll, a professor and chair of the Department of Urology at the University of California, San Francisco, who opposed the “D” grade the Task Force had given PSA screens in 2012. “The message now is not ‘no screening,’ but ‘smarter screening,’ preserving benefits and reducing harms.”

The recommendation also addresses men who are at increased risk, particularly African-American men and patients with a family history of prostate cancer.

“For African-American men or those with a family history of prostate cancer, informing these men of their higher risk for developing prostate cancer should be a part of the conversation,” wrote two researchers from the Cleveland Clinic in another accompanying JAMA editorial.

“The U.S. health care delivery system needs a structure that not only allows, but encourages, a space for physicians and patients to engage in meaningful conversations where shared decision making has the opportunity to take place,” wrote Anita D. Misra-Herbert, MD, and Michael W. Kattan, PhD. “What the updated USPSTF recommendations for prostate cancer screening are asking of physicians is to take time to pause, explain what is currently known, understand patient preferences, and make the screening decision together.”