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Cancer Center

Screening for Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer screening means looking for cancer before it causes symptoms. This helps to find cancer at an early stage when it may be easier to treat.

Tests that are commonly used to screen for prostate cancer are:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): A doctor or nurse will insert a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to feel the prostate. This allows the examiner to estimate the size of the prostate and feel for any lumps or other abnormalities.
  • Prostate specific antigen test (PSA): The PSA test is a blood test that measures the level of PSA in the blood. PSA is a substance made by the prostate. The levels of PSA in the blood can be higher in men who have prostate cancer. The PSA level may also be elevated in other conditions that affect the prostate.

As a rule, the higher the PSA level in the blood, the more likely a prostate problem is present. But many factors, such as age and race, can affect PSA levels. Some prostate glands produce more PSA than others. PSA levels also can be affected by:

  • Certain medical procedures.
  • Certain medications.
  • An enlarged prostate.
  • A prostate infection.

Because many factors can affect PSA levels, your doctor is the best person to interpret your PSA test results.

Should I Get Screened for Prostate Cancer?

Not all medical experts agree that screening for prostate cancer will save lives. Currently, there is not enough evidence to decide if the potential benefits of prostate cancer screening outweigh the potential risks.

Potential benefits of prostate cancer screening include:

  • Screening can detect cancers early.
  •  Treatment for prostate cancer may be more effective when it is found early.

Potential risks of prostate cancer screening include:

  • False positive test results (indicating that you have prostate cancer when in fact you do not) that lead to further tests and can cause anxiety.
  •  Treatment of some prostate cancers that may have never affected a man's health even if left untreated.
  •  Treatment may lead to serious side effects such as impotence (inability to keep an erection) and incontinence (inability to control the flow of urine, resulting in leakage).

CDC and other federal agencies follow the prostate cancer screening guidelines set forth by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which state that there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against routine screening for prostate cancer using PSA or DRE.

Informed Decision Making

Given the uncertainty about the benefit of screening, CDC supports informed decision making. Informed decision making occurs when a man:

  • Understands the nature and risk of prostate cancer.
  • Understands the risks of, benefits of, and alternatives to screening.
  • Participates in the decision to be screened or not at a level he desires.
  • Makes a decision consistent with his preferences and values.

*Information from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).