Prostate Cancer: Early Detection

Screening means checking for a health problem before a person has symptoms. This can sometimes find diseases like certain cancers early, which can lead to early treatment. This may improve the chance that treatment will work better. But it is not clear exactly how helpful screening is for prostate cancer.

Screening tests for prostate cancer

Two screening tests can look for prostate cancer:

  • PSA blood test. This test looks at the level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood. A higher level means it is more likely that a man has prostate cancer.

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE). In this exam, the health care provider inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate for abnormal areas. This test is not always done as part of prostate cancer screening.

Abnormal results on these screening tests can mean that a man may have prostate cancer, but these tests can’t diagnose prostate cancer. A prostate biopsy is needed to be sure. A biopsy is when small pieces of tissue are taking to be examined in a lab.

Cross section side view of male pelvis. Healthcare provider's gloved finger is inserted in rectum to feel prostate through rectal wall.
The DRE takes just a few seconds.

Why prostate cancer screening is controversial

Not all health care providers agree that prostate cancer screening is useful. This is because:

  • PSA test results are not always right. In some cases, the PSA test can have false-positive or false-negative results. A false-positive means that test results show a man may have cancer when he doesn’t. This can lead to more tests, which can lead to stress and possible harm from the tests. A false-negative means that test results do not show cancer when a man does have cancer. This can mean you don't get the additional tests or the treatment you need.

  • Finding prostate cancer early may not be helpful. Even if screening does help find cancer early, prostate cancer often grows slowly and most often affects older men. This means that finding it early may not lead to a longer life. Many men with prostate cancer die years later of other causes without having symptoms or being treated for their cancer. But health care providers can’t always tell which cancers are likely to grow fast and need to be treated. Even if a cancer is slow-growing, a man may not be OK with living with cancer and may want it treated. Treatment for prostate cancer can have serious side effects, such as erection problems and lack of urine control.

Research in progress

It’s not yet clear if the benefits of screening for prostate cancer are greater than the possible harm. Research studies have found that prostate cancer screening can detect more cancers. But it is still not clear if screening saves enough lives to outweigh the harm treatment can cause.

Researchers are looking for better ways to tell:

  • Which prostate cancers need to be treated

  • Which prostate cancers can be safely watched instead

At this time there are no standard tests that can do this.

What expert groups recommend

Most expert medical groups agree that routine prostate cancer screening should not be done for all men. But the advice varies between groups. For example:

  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). This group advises no routine prostate cancer screening. USPSTF believes the benefits are not greater than the harm.

  • American Urological Association. This group advises that men ages 55 to 69 at average risk for prostate cancer talk with their health care providers about being screened. Men at higher risk could have this talk earlier.

  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. This group advises that men talk with their health care providers about the pros and cons of screening starting at age 45 to 49. 

  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. This group advises that men expected to live at least 10 years should talk with their health care providers about whether or not screening is right for them.

  • American Cancer Society. This group advises that men talk with their health care providers about the pros and cons of screening. They advise having this talk starting at age 50 for those at average risk. And they advise having this talk starting at age 45 for men who are African-American or who have a family history of prostate cancer.

Making a decision

All the groups advise that men talk with their health care providers to make an informed decision about screening. If you are thinking about being screened, talk with your health care provider about:

  • Your personal risk of prostate cancer based on your age, race, and family history

  • What the screening test results can and can’t tell you

  • What the next steps would be if the test results show you might have prostate cancer

  • What your options would be for treating or not treating right away

  • What the treatment options are if you were to have treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick MD
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 3/23/2015
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