PROSTATE cancer kills more than 3000 men in Australia each year, greater than the number of women dying from breast cancer.
Advanced stages of the disease can have a devastating effect on quality of life mainly with spread to bones causing severe pain or spinal cord compression with paraplegia. However, the vast majority of men diagnosed with prostate cancer will die from some unrelated cause.
Attempts to prevent prostate cancer deaths have lead to overzealous attempts to diagnose and treat the disease, resulting in many men receiving unnecessary treatment. Many men also experience surgery complications such as urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction or radiation treatment complications such as difficulty with urinary or bowel function or bleeding.
Until relatively recently, views have been sharply polarised as either supporting screening using prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing or not screening at all. The answer for most men almost certainly lies somewhere in between.
Recently, we have seen a significant drift of thought from those who previously favoured mass population screening towards a more moderate approach but those against screening have failed to shift from their steeply dogmatic views.
The Melbourne Consensus Statement (MCS) on testing for prostate cancer was published on line by the BJU International earlier this month.
A series of five statements were formed through the consensus of international experts attending the Prostate Cancer World Congress in Melbourne. The focus is very much on considering an individualised approach to prostate cancer testing rather than mass population screening.
The MCS gives men and their doctors timely access to cutting-edge appraisal of the latest evidence.
Statement 1: “For men aged 50–69, level 1 evidence demonstrates that PSA testing reduces prostate cancer-specific mortality and the incidence of metastatic prostate cancer.” This simply states fact on the basis of large randomised controlled trial evidence. It does make a recommendation for screening but provides factual information that will enable men to make a decision in consultation with their doctors as to whether they will benefit from being tested.
Statement 2: “Prostate cancer diagnosis must be uncoupled from prostate cancer intervention.” Not all men diagnosed with prostate cancer require treatment and many can be managed conservatively by close observation. There is a huge movement towards conservative management by active surveillance and, pleasingly, Australia is leading the way in this area. The argument that a prostate cancer diagnosis invariably progresses to intervention is fallacious and does not represent modern-day practice.
Statement 3: “PSA testing should not be considered on its own, but rather as part of a multivariable approach to early prostate cancer detection.” PSA should not be the only determinant of whether a man elects to be tested or not. Many other factors play a role and, in particular, other elements that may be associated with increased risk such as ethnicity or family history, and elements that might be associated with a man not dying of prostate cancer such as concurrent illness from which the man is more likely to die than prostate cancer. Many tests are emerging that contribute to risk assessment and deciding whether to undergo testing including magnetic resonance imaging scans of the prostate, biomarkers such as prostate cancer antigen 3 and the Prostate Health Index as well as online risk calculators.
Statement 4: “Baseline PSA testing for men in their 40s is useful for predicting the future risk of prostate cancer.” Men in their 40s should be made aware of the value of the PSA test as a risk assessment tool for future prostate cancer risk. It can help triage these men into a more frequent or less frequent PSA testing program. A recent large Swedish study demonstrated that, for many men, a total of three lifetime PSA blood tests could be sufficient. PSA is a poor predictor of current risk of prostate cancer but, in younger men, it is a good predictor of future prostate cancer death. Men should be aware of this information and arrive at their own decisions in consultation with their doctor if they wish to proceed with testing. To deny men participation in such a decision denies an individual right to their own health care management.
Statement 5: “Older men in good health with over ten-year life expectancy should not be denied PSA testing on the basis of their age.” This is largely based on the fact that some older men may have a life expectancy that well exceeds the time frame in which prostate cancer could cause death. The need for this conversation with men over 70 years old should be uncommon.
The MCS has received much media coverage. The “head in the sand” approach of detractors against any form of testing for prostate cancer does nothing to reduce the suffering from advanced prostate cancer and its associated death.
The MCS statements acknowledge and concede that there is a need to be smarter about who ought to be tested for prostate cancer in order to avoid overtreatment and treatment-related side effects.
Professor Henry Woo is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Sydney. On Twitter @DrHWoo. Professor Mark Frydenberg is professor of surgery at Monash University. On Twitter @mfrydenberg