Prostate cancer screening: It’s time for advocates to put up or shut up

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  • Kam Lee says:

    I was greatly harmed by the Prostate Specific Antigen Screening as part of my annual physical when I turned 50 years old in 2013. My primary doctor did not discuss with me about risks and benefits of the PSA screening, and I had to pay $30 at Life Lab. The PSA came back elevated (above 3.5 ng/mL), and I was immediately referred to an urologist who was young and impatient with little medical knowledge. He pushed me through needle biopsy, CT Scan, and MRI. He somehow arrived at the conclusion that I had End Stage 4 Prostate Cancer with metastatsis in bones and distant organs with only 6 months to live. He decided to conduct Radical Prostatomy on me immediately. I asked him if I could seek a second medical opinion because if I would be dead within 6 month because of metastasis, then why I felt so normal – no bone pains, no blood in my urine or semen, no symptoms whatsoever. His response was that there were no symptoms in patients who had End Stage 4 Prostate Cancer, and he flatly refused to allow me a second medical opinion and insisted on me to go through the Radical Prostatomy within 10 days.

    The long term side effects of the Radical Prostatomy were immense – urinary incontinence, impotence, and infertility. My life has completely been ruined: Life has no meaning at all after the surgery. Yes, I would rather die of the prostate cancer than living hellish life! All thanks to the PSA Screening and my own stupidity of believing in the uologist’s diagnosis (how could a localized treatment such as radical prostatomy be curative of metastasized prostate cancer. They were all lies!)

  • Kam Lee says:

    Speaking from my own experience with PSA Screening, which was not my intention to get screened. My primary physician just included the screening on my first annual physical when I turned 50 in 2013. My unfortunate encounter with the PSA Screening propelled me into a life of living hell, depression, and numerous suicide attempts. You see, the screening led to a referral with a urologist who immediately recommended me to undergo a needled biopsy, bone scan, and ultimately the deadly radical prostatomy which was pushed onto me so quickly that I had no time to consider if it was the right treatment for me. My urologist also lied to me that I had End Stage 4 Prostate Cancer with metasisis in my bones and distant organs even when I insisted that I was asymptomatic, and needed a second opinion. His responses were that I did not have to exhibit symptoms to have End Stage 4 Prostate Cancer, I had no time to waste on a second opinion because I would be dead within 6 months without the surgery, which was the only treatment option available. I was so scared by his diagnosis, and immediately signed the consent forms for the Radical Prostatomy – this surgery is, by any means, a death sentence! And what made my case atypical is because my urologist had lied to me about my diagnosis,and that is the most scaring part.

  • Pam Heard says:

    The PSA test remains our most important tool in diagnosing prostate cancer, and we support screening men who are properly informed. Through individualized and shared decision-making, we have lessened the chance of unnecessary treatment. We are proud to set the standard for supportive care before and after treatment, and we are also leveraging PSA screening to empower men to be more active in their health care.
    While some prostate cancers grow rapidly and metastasize or spread, others grow very slowly and are unlikely to metastasize. This low risk prostate cancer may not need to be treated as soon as they are diagnosed. Slow growing prostate cancer may not have time to cause significant problems and the complications and side effects of treatment may outweigh the advantages. In Calgary’s Prostate Cancer Centre’s active surveillance clinic, men are carefully monitored. Treatment can be given if the cancer is progressing or if the patient decides on further treatment. Over treatment of men with low grade cancer is not an issue in Calgary.
    We would welcome anyone to come to Calgary’s Prostate Cancer Centre and talk to any one of our Urologists, staff, or patients working in the field of prostate cancer to see the world-class clinical work that is being provided to our patients and their families.

    Kevin V Carlson MD FRCSC DABU
    Clinical Associate Professor and Section Head of Urology
    Department of Surgery Cumming School of Medicine
    University of Calgary

    Eric Hyndman, MD, PhD
    Urologist, Clinical Assistant Professor University of Calgary, Southern Alberta Institute of Urology

    Bryan Donnelly, MD, MSc, FRCSC
    Urologist, Clinical Associate Professor University of Calgary, Co-Founder of Calgary’s Prostate Cancer Centre
    Dr. Geoffrey Gotto, MD, MPH, FRCSC
    Department of Surgery, The University of Calgary
    Southern Alberta Institute of Urology

    • James Dickinson says:

      Dear Ms. Heard, and Drs. Donnelly, Carlson, Hyndman, Donnelly and Gotto,

      Thank you for your response. My article was aimed to challenge the policies of the national organisations, not at activities in Calgary specifically. However, I will happily take you up on this invitation. When I visit, I would really like to learn how you properly inform men before they choose screening, and the way that you undertake “informed decision-making”. I would love to see your data that demonstrates the quality of your care, and how much you reduce overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Even better if you can publically describe it so all may know how good your centre is.

      • Pam Heard says:

        Thanks so much for your response. We are actually trying to set up a symposium in September to address the issue of informed PSA testing, harm from needless biopsies, and our Active Survellience Program (we are a world site) . We think it would be a great idea to have you and anyone else you wish to have on the panel, along with a few of our Calgary urologists to discuss these issues. There would be a full media scrum and Raj (CBC doctor) has agreed to host. Please feel free to contact me by email with some possible dates.

      • James Dickinson says:

        Dear Ms. Heard,

        This symposium sounds interesting. However, for the national audience, perhaps you can share links to your evidence and materials so that all can think about your assessment of the benefits and risks, as requested in my opinion piece above. After all this is a complex set of issues, and such matters are best worked through with slow thought and reflection, not the cut and thrust of verbal debate, nor the “sound bites” of a media scrum.

  • Norma Bateman says:

    Thank you for your enlightening comments. Rarely are we privy to information questioning these practices. I am presently undergoing breast cancer treatment and am relieved that I do not need to be questioning these issues.

  • Mike Fraumeni says:

    Some may find this recent article in BMJ of interest relating to this topic.

    “Renaming low risk conditions labelled as cancer”

    https://www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k3322 (BMJ 2018;362:k3322)

  • ROBERT ROYCE says:

    Excellent article. Well argued. It seems to me that an evidence based approach to screening comes a poor second to a public health approach based on ’emotional appeal’, and that questioning the health economics and efficacy of such screening is seen as bordering on the socially unacceptable. This is one reason why politicians (at least in the UK where I live) are reluctant to get into that debate.

  • Ed Weiss says:

    This is very timely. As a family doctor, the controversy around PSA screening is definitely something I come across very frequently. Just the other day I had a very heartfelt conversation with a patient who had a PSA-detected prostate cancer and was agonizing over whether to go ahead with surgical treatment or not.

    One thing that I think would really help, regardless of what one thinks about PSA testing, is a more straightforward way to discuss possible outcomes with patients. I like the “Best case/worst case” strategy and I think it’s very applicable here — more info at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnS3K44sbu0

    • Andreas Laupacis says:

      Hi Ed. Thanks for the youtube link. Really excellent. i am embarrassed to say I haven’t seen this before. Really, really useful.

  • steve roedde says:

    Well Said!

  • Elizabeth Rankin says:

    This is a good article. If surgeons were honest about this topic they wouldn’t make the money they make doing surgery. Equally significant, the medical students they “teach” and those specializing in urology “wouldn’t get the experience” they need to prepare them for the work they anticipate doing if they had fewer patients designated for all the “testing” and surgical procedures” patients endure.

  • Murray Krahn says:

    i) PSA screening remains a difficult issue, a controversy that has survived the publication of the big trials we thought would put this issue to bed.
    ii) Many guideline groups though, including arguably the CTF, though, don’t give due weight to mens’ preferences. It is about the frequency of events conditional on screening. But it’s also about the meaning of those events, the value or weight that men, and their loved ones, ascribe to labelling, reassurance, PSA anxiety, impotence, incontinence etc. Most guidelines make some effort to count things. Few make a serious effort to review the literature on mens’ values, preferences, experiences for those things. I think it’s really important for guideline developers to treat the evidence in this domain as evidence, and make a good faith effort to find and synthesize these data
    iii) There are a lot of modeling efforts too, which are typically not included in clinical practice guidelines. Many show that there is likely to be a small to very small mortality benefit that must be set against the potential positive and negative health related quality of life events associated with screening. If one is to be serious about the counting thing, I would urge the CTF to start using the best methods of counting- decision- and health economic modeling.


    • James Dickinson says:

      Dear Murray, Thank you for your comments.

      You are right that ultimately the preferences of men are most important in deciding what to do. But preferences based on biased or incomplete knowledge are built on quicksand: they are like the poor republican voters who oppose Obamacare because it is a socialist plot. So synthesising data on preferences based on what men have been told by the prostate screening advocates is useless.

      Too many opinions are based on the “survivors” who have done well. They were diagnosed and treated, and now have no sign of cancer. So they believe they were saved by the treatment – neglecting that most of them were overdiagnosed and would have done well regardless. To be “cured” of a disease that would not kill until the age of 120 is not a great victory. We hear little from those whose lives have been made a misery by the process. Yet their stories matter too. Even more those who have been treated, were caused harms immediately, but still die of the disease in the end.

      Only when we can tell men honestly what the “conditional probabilities” really are, can we have valid preferences. And the modelling you describe merely erects an even shakier superstructure on those wobbly foundations.

      It has been argued that the Canadian Task Force used old and out of date evidence, but perforce it had to use what is available at the time. The urologists and advocates who say “things are better now”, could analyse the latest data from Canadian sources that they control and can perhaps provide better information to assist men to choose. Until they do, men must either follow the Task Force or other decision aids, or choose based on hopes and beliefs rather than facts: a poor basis for decisions.

      • Mike Fraumeni says:

        Hopes and beliefs are important as well though as they make us who we are in large part and not simply facts regardless of how “evidence based” they are. Decision making is a multi-factorial process.

  • Mike Fraumeni says:

    Excellent read! Alerts men to what may be going on behind the scenes with this issue. Clearly as you say, harms that may happen with false-positives is an issue that does need to be specifically and clearly accounted for. First do no harm as the saying goes. This reminds me of something close to my personal situation now, a diagnosis of “conversion disorder” and as this peer-reviewed article mentions, harms can happen from such a diagnosis as this — “Such interference is an important problem, if the diagnosis is accurate. But, in the (more likely) event that it is not accurate, this defensiveness can interfere with both important mental health care and further ongoing necessary medical care.” In: “Problems with diagnosing Conversion Disorder in response to variable and unusual symptoms” – Barnum R. Adolesc Health Med Ther. 2014 Apr 17;5:67-71. doi: 10.2147/AHMT.S57486. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 24808723; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4000178 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4000178/


James Dickinson


James A Dickinson, MBBS PhD CCFP FRACGP, is a family physician and professor in the departments of Family Medicine and of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary.

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