Finding Prostate Cancer Early

Prostate cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States

According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly a quarter of a million people are expected to develop prostate cancer this year. Frequently, these cases can be successfully treated—if the disease is found in time. Unfortunately, the standard test is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, and due to the nature of the condition, is done on a routine basis as part of a regular checkup for men over 50. As a result even though prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in men, 70 percent of biopsies for it come up negative.

The remaining 30 percent, however, are fortunate indeed, because early detection is the only way prostate cancer is tractable, and there are seldom any symptoms early on. One study looked at autopsies on men who had died in their 70s of natural causes and found that almost all of them—four out of five—had been living with untreated and in fact undiagnosed prostate cancer, even if that didn’t prove to be what ultimately killed them.

Because of the importance of early detection and of routine testing, urologists are looking for less invasive tests that are as accurate as the biopsies that are currently standard. These biopsies are performed if a blood test shows high levels of a compound called prostate specific antigen. However, at least half of patients with high PSA levels turn out not to have cancer at all, and in those who do, doctors frequently overestimate the size of the tumor, an error that affects the course of treatment. Now one researcher has proposed that using ultrasound scanners to detect unusual patterns of blood vessels can detect where tumors have established themselves, and to what extent. A quick, inexpensive, and non-invasive scan can thus replace the ordeal of biopsy, and the protracted analysis it requires.

Treatment for prostate cancer is not always necessary or even advisable if the tumor is small. In older patients especially, treating slow-growing prostate cancer may cause more problems than it solves and create more risk than it alleviates. When treatment is needed, hormone therapy shrinks the tumor by reducing the level of the testosterone it feeds on. Alternatively, radiation therapy can be used; a substance called reservatrol can be injected to make the tumor respond better to the radiation.

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