Ben Stiller is cancer free. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer a couple of years back. He recently wrote about his experience and how one test in particular saved his life. You wouldn't think this of a simple medical test, but there's a lot of controversy involved with the PSA test. Opinions (including Ben Stiller's) vary drastically. For those of you asking "could the PSA test save your life?" we offer you both sides of the argument below. You have to take control of your own healthcare these days and that means making informed decisions.
What Is A PSA Test?
First things first. What are we talking about exactly? The PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen. It's a protein that's made in your prostate gland and found in your blood. The test measures the level of PSA in your blood. Like in golf, getting a low score is good. If you have 4 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, that suggests you do not have cancer. More, however, CAN be indicative of prostate cancer. The CAN is important because it's not a for sure thing.
Here are other reasons you could have a high PSA level:
1. Urinary tract infection
2. Prostatitis, which is an infection that can be treated with antibiotics
3. Trauma to the area around the prostate gland
4. Prolonged bike riding (studies vary on this)
When Should You Get A PSA Test?
There isn't a set answer for this. The American Cancer Society recommends not getting one until a person reaches 50 (40 if you're at higher risk for prostate cancer such as being African-American or have a family history of the disease). The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends men start at age 40 period. On the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force don't think you should get the test at all unless you are showing other symptoms of prostate cancer. The problem with the latter recommendation, as Mr. Stiller points out in his own post, by then, it might be too late. If he had waited, his prostate cancer would have went undiagnosed for years and he'd be starting treatment now, instead of having ended it. Since one of the few things we know about cancer is that early diagnosis increases chances of survival, waiting might not always be wise.
Why Not To Get Tested
It's not a perfect test, as pointed out above. Consequently, a false positive can happen. However, a high PSA is never indicative of nothing. It just might not always mean cancer. That means there has to be follow up tests and procedures. First up would be an ultrasound, which is non-invasive. It's the same procedure used to check on a baby in a pregnant woman's belly. After that is the biopsy. That is invasive. A needle is inserted into your prostate to collect samples.
Any time you have an invasive medical procedure, you are at risk for infection. There is also the psychological effect of thinking you might have cancer, which has been known to haunt people even after tests have come back negative. Anxiety and depression can occur up to 3 months after they've been diagnosed cancer-free.
Studies have varied wildly on whether the test even works. That said, Dr. Tracey Krupski, a urologic oncologist and assistant professor of urology at the University of Virginia says, "Since we've been doing PSA testing in America, we've had the largest drop in mortality from prostate cancer of any country."
Why To Get Tested
It can save your life.
In the American healthcare system, doctors are pressed for time. Unlike in the television show House, most ailments are not the result of some exotic disease. The obvious choice is usually the right course of action, so doctors tend to go with that option most often. But sometimes, it's not the obvious choice. When a doctor makes that choice and gets it wrong, it's not that they don't care. They wouldn't be doctors if they didn't care. It's just a pragmatic choice. it's trying to get to as many sick people as possible, no malice intended.
What saved Ben Stiller's life is that his doctor took the time to explain everything we just did for you. He was then able to make an informed decision, knowing what was at risk. Having that information, he got the PSA test (even though he had tested negative for other cancer indicative tests). That simple act saved his life because he did indeed have prostate cancer.
Could The PSA Test Save Your Life?
Maybe. After reading this, you can make an informed decision for yourself too. You can take control of your healthcare. It's only right. You're the one that has to live with the consequences of those decisions. Ask questions of your physician. Take advantage of online blood test companies like Walk-In Lab, who offer reasonable rates and upfront pricing on a variety of lab tests, not just the PSA Test. Also, check out the American Cancer Society's downloads designed to help you make the right choices as it comes to your health.