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Prostate Cancer Screening (PDQ®)

Evidence of Harms

Any potential benefits derived from screening asymptomatic men need to be weighed against the harms of screening and diagnostic procedures and treatments for prostate cancer.

Whatever the screening modality, the screening process itself can lead to psychological effects in men who have a prostate biopsy but do not have prostate cancer. One study of these men at 12 months after their negative biopsy who reported worrying that they may develop cancer (P < .001), showed large increases in prostate-cancer worry compared with men with a normal prostate-specific antigen (PSA) (26% vs. 6%).[1] In the same study, biopsied men were more likely than those in the normal PSA group to have had at least one follow-up PSA test in the first year (73% vs. 42%; P < .001), more likely to have had another biopsy (15% vs. 1%; P < .001), and more likely to have visited a urologist (71% vs. 13%; P < .001).

Three cohort studies in Sweden and in the United States linked databases to examine the association between new diagnosis of prostate cancer with cardiovascular events/death or with suicide. One Swedish study found that in the first year after the diagnosis of prostate cancer, the risk of death from cardiovascular disease (CVD) was increased in men diagnosed with prostate cancer compared with men who were not diagnosed with prostate cancer (relative risk [RR] = 1.9; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.9–2.0; adjusted for age, calendar time period, and time since diagnosis). The risk of death from CVD was highest in the first week after diagnosis (RR = 11.2; 95% CI, 10.4–12.1) and was also higher in younger men (age < 54 years). These risks were less in men diagnosed in the most recent time periods. Also in the first year after diagnosis, the risk of committing suicide was higher for men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer (RR = 2.6; 95% CI, 2.1–3.0; adjusted for age, calendar time period, marital status, educational level, and history of psychiatric hospitalization). Again, this was highest in the first week after diagnosis (RR = 8.4; 95% CI, 1.9–22.7).[2] A second Swedish study largely confirmed these findings.[3]

The U.S. cohort study explored the association between prostate cancer diagnosis and CVD mortality or suicide in men diagnosed with prostate cancer compared with population-level expected rates during three different time periods (pre-PSA, peri-PSA, and post-PSA). For CVD mortality, the standardized mortality ratio (SMR) was elevated for men diagnosed with prostate cancer in the first month after diagnosis in all time periods (overall SMR = 2.05; 95% CI, 1.89–2.22), but decreased in later months during the first year (decreasing to < 1.0 in the PSA time period). This association was not changed to an important degree by age, race, or tumor grade. SMRs were higher for nonmarried men, for men who lived in lower educational status or higher poverty counties, and for men with metastatic disease at diagnosis. Also, in the first 3 months after diagnosis, the SMR for suicide was higher in men with prostate cancer (SMR = 1.9; 95% CI, 1.4–2.6). In months 4 to 12, the SMR was lower but still greater than 1.0. The SMR for suicide, however, was only greater than 1.0 in the pre-PSA and peri-PSA time periods, but not in the post-PSA time period. SMR was higher for nonmarried men but did not vary by education or poverty.[4]

These data lend credence to the concern that overdiagnosis of prostate cancer due to screening could lead to an increased risk of CVD mortality or suicide.

While there is no literature suggesting serious complications of digital rectal examination (DRE) or transrectal sonography, and the harms associated with venipuncture for PSA testing can be regarded as trivial, prostatic biopsies are associated with important complications. Transient fever, pain, hematospermia, and hematuria are all common, as are positive urine cultures.[5-7] Sepsis occurs in approximately 0.4% of cases.[6,8]

Long-term complications of radical prostatectomy include urinary incontinence, urethral stricture, erectile dysfunction, and the morbidity associated with general anesthesia and a major surgical procedure. Fecal incontinence can also occur. The associated mortality rate is reported to be 0.1% to 1%, depending on age. In the population-based Prostate Cancer Outcomes Study, 8.4% of 1,291 men were incontinent and 59.9% were impotent at 18 or 24 months following radical prostatectomy. More than 40% of men reported that their sexual performance was a moderate-to-large problem. Both sexual and urinary function varied by age, with younger men relatively less affected.[8,9]

Definitive external-beam radiation therapy can result in acute cystitis, proctitis, and sometimes enteritis. These are generally reversible but may be chronic. In the short-term, potency is preserved with irradiation in most cases but may diminish over time. A systematic review of evidence of complications of radiation therapy shows that 20% to 40% of men who had no erectile dysfunction before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterwards. Furthermore, 2% to 16% of men who had no urinary incontinence before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterward, and about 18% of men had some bowel dysfunction 1 year after treatment. The magnitude of effects of brachytherapy has not been determined, but the spectrum of complications are similar.[10] Radiation to the prostate has been reported to increase the risk of secondary malignancies, most notably of the rectum and bladder. While the relative risk in a large Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER)-based study was 1.26 (95% CI, 1.21–1.30), the absolute increase in risk is low. The same review of evidence found hormone therapy with luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists reduces sexual function by 40% to 70%, and is associated with breast swelling in 5% to 25% of men. Hot flashes occur in 50% to 60% of men taking LHRH agonists.[8] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Prostate Cancer Treatment for more information.)

The question of whether prostate cancer treatment contributes to symptoms among screened prostate cancer survivors was addressed in an analysis from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial. The randomized controlled PLCO analysis compared 529 prostate cancer survivors, 5 to 10 years postdiagnosis, with 514 noncancer controls, regarding prostate cancer-specific symptomatology. There was poorer sexual and urinary function among prostate cancer survivors compared with noncancer controls, suggesting that these symptoms are related to prostate cancer treatment and not aging or comorbidities.[11]

Screening has increased the incidence of prostate cancer. In the current medical climate, most early-stage prostate cancers are treated by radical surgery or irradiation with intent to eradicate the pathology. There is evidence that not all patients diagnosed with prostate cancer as a consequence of screening are in immediate need of curative treatment. Death from other causes often occurs before screen detected, localized, and well-differentiated malignancies affect the survival of these patients. To avoid overtreatment and consequent morbid events, active surveillance (AS) is an emerging strategy applicable in these kinds of cases wherein curative treatment is delayed pending objective medical evidence of disease progression.

The effectiveness of AS was retrospectively investigated in the European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC) trial. Data from 577 men diagnosed with prostate cancer as a consequence of periodic screening between 1994 and 2007 at a mean age of 66.3 years in four participating clinical centers in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland were evaluated. Selection criteria for inclusion in the analysis were:

  • PSA less than or equal to 10 ng/mL.
  • PSA density less than 0.2 ng/mL.
  • Stage T1C/T2.
  • Gleason score less than or equal to 3 + 3 = 6.
  • No more than two positive biopsy cores.

Men with positive lymph nodes or distant metastases at the time of diagnosis were excluded from the analysis. These are the same thresholds being applied in the (as yet unreported) prospective Prostate Cancer Research International: Active Surveillance study on AS originating from ERSPC and in the (also unreported) protocol-based prospective study of AS in Canada.

The mean follow-up time for the 577 men in the retrospective assessment was 4.35 years (0–11.63 years). The calculated 10-year prostate cancer-specific survival rate was 100%. The overall 10-year survival rate was 77%. The calculated 10-year deferred treatment-free survival rate was 43%.

After 7.75 years, 50% of men had received treatment. The median treatment-free survival was 2.5 years. Men treated during follow-up were slightly younger at diagnosis than men remaining untreated (64.7 years vs. 67.0 years; P < .001). Of the 110 men shifting to active treatment despite favorable PSA levels and PSA doubling times, DRE was known in 53 of the men and played a role in nine of them, whereas rebiopsies were known in 27 of the men and played a role in none of them. On the basis of PSA characteristics, 1.9% of patients who remained untreated may have been better candidates for active treatment, while 55.8% of men who received active treatment were not obvious candidates for radical treatment and neither DRE nor rebiopsy explained the discrepancy. Factors like anxiety and urologic complaints may have been more explanatory, but the data were not available.

The authors conclude that their data confirm prior studies' findings, that many screen-detected prostate cancers may be actively followed (e.g., AS), and curative treatment delayed, thereby delaying or avoiding the morbid consequences of radical therapy without diminishing survival. The authors also note that a considerable fraction of men do not comply with the AS regimen apparently for psychological reasons, and AS often results in delay, not avoidance, of radical therapy.


  1. Fowler FJ Jr, Barry MJ, Walker-Corkery B, et al.: The impact of a suspicious prostate biopsy on patients' psychological, socio-behavioral, and medical care outcomes. J Gen Intern Med 21 (7): 715-21, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Fall K, Fang F, Mucci LA, et al.: Immediate risk for cardiovascular events and suicide following a prostate cancer diagnosis: prospective cohort study. PLoS Med 6 (12): e1000197, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Carlsson S, Sandin F, Fall K, et al.: Risk of suicide in men with low-risk prostate cancer. Eur J Cancer 49 (7): 1588-99, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Fang F, Keating NL, Mucci LA, et al.: Immediate risk of suicide and cardiovascular death after a prostate cancer diagnosis: cohort study in the United States. J Natl Cancer Inst 102 (5): 307-14, 2010. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Aus G, Ahlgren G, Bergdahl S, et al.: Infection after transrectal core biopsies of the prostate--risk factors and antibiotic prophylaxis. Br J Urol 77 (6): 851-5, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Rietbergen JB, Kruger AE, Kranse R, et al.: Complications of transrectal ultrasound-guided systematic sextant biopsies of the prostate: evaluation of complication rates and risk factors within a population-based screening program. Urology 49 (6): 875-80, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Sharpe JR, Sadlowski RW, Finney RP, et al.: Urinary tract infection after transrectal needle biopsy of the prostate. J Urol 127 (2): 255-6, 1982. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Walter LC, Fung KZ, Kirby KA, et al.: Five-year downstream outcomes following prostate-specific antigen screening in older men. JAMA Intern Med 173 (10): 866-73, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Stanford JL, Feng Z, Hamilton AS, et al.: Urinary and sexual function after radical prostatectomy for clinically localized prostate cancer: the Prostate Cancer Outcomes Study. JAMA 283 (3): 354-60, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Screening for Prostate Cancer. Rockville, Md: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2011. Available online. Last accessed February 6, 2015.
  11. Taylor KL, Luta G, Miller AB, et al.: Long-term disease-specific functioning among prostate cancer survivors and noncancer controls in the prostate, lung, colorectal, and ovarian cancer screening trial. J Clin Oncol 30 (22): 2768-75, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: April 2, 2015