By GARDINER HARRIS
Healthy men should no longer receive a P.S.A. blood test to screen for prostate cancer because the test does not save lives over all
and often leads to more tests and treatments that needlessly cause pain, impotence and incontinence in many, a key government health panel has decided.
The task force’s recommendations are followed by most medical groups. Two years ago the task force recommended that women in their 40s should no longer get routine mammograms, setting off a firestorm of controversy. The recommendation to avoid the P.S.A. test is even more forceful and applies to healthy men of all ages.
“Unfortunately, the evidence now shows that this test does not save men’s lives,” said Dr. Virginia Moyer, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and chairwoman of the task force. “This test cannot tell the difference between cancers that will and will not affect a man during his natural lifetime. We need to find one that does.”
But advocates for those with prostate cancer promised to fight the recommendation. Baseball’s Joe Torre, the financier Michael Milken and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, are among tens of thousands of men who believe a P.S.A. test saved their lives.
The task force can also expect resistance from some drug makers and doctors. Treating men with high P.S.A. levels has become a lucrative business. Some in Congress have criticized previous decisions by the task force as akin to rationing, although the task force does not consider cost in its recommendations.
“We’re disappointed,” said Thomas Kirk, of Us TOO, the nation’s largest advocacy group for prostate cancer survivors. “The bottom line is that this is the best test we have, and the answer can’t be, ‘Don’t get tested.’ ”
But that is exactly what the task force is recommending. There is no evidence that a digital rectal exam or ultrasound are effective, either. “There are no reliable signs or symptoms of prostate cancer,” said Dr. Timothy J. Wilt, a member of the task force and a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. Frequency and urgency of urinating are poor indicators of disease, since the cause is often benign.
The P.S.A. test, routinely given to men 50 and older, measures a protein — prostate-specific antigen — that is released by prostate cells, and there is little doubt that it helps identify the presence of cancerous cells in the prostate. But a vast majority of men with such cells never suffer ill effects because their cancer is usually slow-growing. Even for men who do have fast-growing cancer, the P.S.A. test may not save them since there is no proven benefit to earlier treatment of such invasive disease.
As the P.S.A. test has grown in popularity, the devastating consequences of the biopsies and treatments that often flow from the test have become increasingly apparent. From 1986 through 2005, one million men received surgery, radiation therapy or both who would not have been treated without a P.S.A. test, according to the task force. Among them, at least 5,000 died soon after surgery and 10,000 to 70,000 suffered serious complications. Half had persistent blood in their semen, and 200,000 to 300,000 suffered impotence, incontinence or both. As a result of these complications, the man who developed the test, Dr. Richard J. Ablin, has called its widespread use a “public health disaster.”
One in six men in the United States will eventually be found to have prostate cancer, making it the second most common form of cancer in men after skin cancer. An estimated 32,050 men died of prostate cancer last year and 217,730 men received the diagnosis. The disease is rare before age 50, and most deaths occur after age 75.
Not knowing what is going on with one’s prostate may be the best course, since few men live happily with the knowledge that one of their organs is cancerous. Autopsy studies show that a third of men ages 40 to 60 have prostate cancer, a share that grows to three-fourths after age 85.
P.S.A. testing is most common in men over 70, and it is in that group that it is the most dangerous since such men usually have cancerous prostate cells but benefit the least from surgery and radiation. Some doctors treat patients who have high P.S.A. levels with drugs that block male hormones, although there is no convincing evidence that these drugs are helpful in localized prostate cancer and they often result in impotence, breast enlargement and hot flashes.
Of the trials conducted to assess the value of P.S.A. testing, the two largest were conducted in Europe and the United States. Both “demonstrate that if any benefit does exist, it is very small after 10 years,” according to the task force’s draft recommendation statement.
The European trial had 182,000 men from seven countries who either got P.S.A. testing or did not. When measured across all of the men in the study, P.S.A. testing did not cut death rates in nine years of follow-up. But in men ages 55 to 69, there was a very slight improvement in mortality. The American trial, with 76,693 men, found that P.S.A. testing did not cut death rates after 10 years.
Dr. Eric Klein of the Cleveland Clinic, an expert in prostate cancer, said he disagreed with the task force’s recommendations. Citing the European trial, he said “I think there’s a substantial amount of evidence from randomized clinical trials that show that among younger men, under 65, screening saves lives.”
The task force’s recommendations apply only to healthy men without symptoms. The group did not consider whether the test is appropriate in men who already have suspicious symptoms or those who have already been treated for the disease. The recommendations will be open to public comment next week before they are finalized.
Recommendations of the task force often determine whether federal health programs like Medicare and private health plans envisioned under the health reform law pay fully for a test. But legislation already requires Medicare to pay for P.S.A. testing no matter what the task force recommends.
Still, the recommendations will most likely be greeted with trepidation by the Obama administration, which has faced charges from Republicans that it supports rationing of health care services, which have been politically effective, regardless of the facts.
After the task force’s recommendation against routine mammograms for women under 50, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius announced that the government would continue to pay for the test for women in their 40s. On Thursday, the administration announced with great fanfare that as a result of the health reform law, more people with Medicare were getting free preventive services like mammograms.
Dr. Michael Rawlins, chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in Britain, said he was given a P.S.A. test several years ago without his knowledge. He then had a biopsy, which turned out to be negative. But if cancer had been detected, he would have faced an awful choice, he said: “Would I want to have it removed, or would I have gone for watchful waiting with all the anxieties of that?” He said he no longer gets the test.
But Dan Zenka, a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, said a high P.S.A. test result eventually led him to have his prostate removed, a procedure that led to the discovery that cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. His organization supports widespread P.S.A. testing. “I can tell you it saved my life,” he said.