A new study of more than a 1,000 prostate cancer patients could change the way doctors interpret those screenings. The standard screening tool is the PSA blood test. The study uncovered a clue that helps predict which men are more likely to die from the cancer before they are ever diagnosed. The clue? The PSA number itself is not as critical as how fast it rises from year to year. In other words, men whose PSA levels climbed more than 2 points a year were more likely to have a deadly kind of prostate cancer compared to those whose levels did not climb that fast. A concern for some, but a relief for others with prostate cancer whose numbers show the slow growing kind.
"If you had a man whose PSA was 6 this year, 6 last year and 6 the year before, he would be in a safer position than a man whose PSA was 4 this year, 3 last year and 2 the year before," says Dr. William Catalona, a prostate cancer researcher.
Dr. Catalona helped pioneer the PSA blood test. Right now, the first PSA test is recommended for men at age 50 and earlier for African Americans or for any man with a family history of the cancer. But now, Dr. Catalona says these findings in the New England Journal of Medicine point to the need for a baseline PSA blood test screening, perhaps as early as age 35, with regular screenings at 45 or 50. That way doctors could track any changes with a better chance of spotting a sudden jump, much like women get a baseline mammogram to use as for comparison later.
Now, even though the PSA blood test has gotten mixed reviews for it's ability to diagnose cancer, researchers say these findings suggest the test could be even better at predicting the aggressiveness of prostate cancer when they find it. According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in men and kills nearly 30,000 men a year.
PSA is a protein, in this case produced by the prostate gland, and plays a role in making semen a liquid when it leaves the body. For the most part, PSA stays in the prostate gland and is in the bloodstream in barely measurable amounts, but when something is going wrong in the prostate, PSA leaks into the bloodstream.