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I’m 70 and have a PSA which was at 4.6 when I was 66, and while it has been regularly monitored over the past 18 months or so has been moving up and down between 6 and 7. My doctor thought that I should be referred and I have had two hpital appointments, but I have so far decided against having a prostate biopsy, though it is obvious that my local hospital’s oncology department would like me to have one. The health worker I saw at my first hospital appointment was happy to discuss the issue with me, but I suspect the consultant I just saw probably thought I should stop wasting his time and get booked in for a biopsy without further delay.
I have received information from those two appointments, but I have obtained much more information from online research. Based on studying a number of online medical reports over the period 2008 – 2014, it is evident that there is increasing prejudice, at least in the US and Australia, against the use of prostate biopsies. The primary reasons for this seem to be an increasing risk of serious infections from the most common type of biopsy, a growing recognition (though this may be controversial) that psa screening and biopsies are ineffective in reducing the incidence of terminal prostate cancer, and that screening and biopsies contribute to massive ‘over treatment’ of prostate cancers
Summary of Statistics (some of which may be controversial but all of which are based on (my interpretation of) studies published in urological journals, research reviews and conference speeches by leading urologists).
Of every 100 men who have a prostate biopsy:
· 97 didn’t need it (that is, they don’t have a prostate cancer requiring treatment)
· 6 will get a serious infection as a result (a figure which has doubled in recent years), which will cause them to be hospitalised, and from which a very occasional man will die, while others (we don’t know how many) will have persistent painful side effects
· between 17 and 22 will be offered treatment that they don’t need, as a result of which about 25% of men in their 70s will become incontinent or impotent.
The Perceived Indicators for Biopsy
Primarily a raised psa; a psa which has increased rapidly over a fairly short period, typically a year; smoking; family history of prostate cancer; age (considered with the other factors). I have a raised psa, but it’s not dramatically high – it’s been between 6 and 7 over the past 1 ½ years, and it has not increased dramatically – it was 4.6 five years ago. I do smoke, and I am 70, but I am generally in good health, and there is no history of prostate cancer in my family that I know of.
Statistics Based on Recent Urological Papers
Of every 100 men who have a biopsy, between 75 and 80 have no cancerous cells and didn’t need the procedure; 20 to 25 will have cancerous cells found on biopsy BUT a large percentage of these men will have a tumour which develops very slowly, will not be terminal and doesn’t really need any treatment. Only a small percentage will have an aggressive tumour requiring immediate intervention; the Harvard School of Public Health, in a 2014 paper, put this percentage at 10 – 15%, or 3 men out of the 100.
This means only 3 out of every 100 men who have a biopsy really needed it. And there are two other real concerns.
1. The one certainty with prostate biopsies is that 100% of the men who have them will have ‘side effects’. Some will be shortlived and not really a problem, but some will be painful and longer lasting, and some men, currently about 6 out of the 100, will be hospitalised with serious infections, and the very occasional one will die. There are no statistics for the number of men receiving treatment for post-biopsy infections at doctors’ surgeries. I don’t necessarily see this as a reason not to have a biopsy, because obviously if you really need a biopsy to diagnose a terminal cancer then it’s worth putting up with the side effects. But do you really need it?
2. Most worryingly, doctors apparently can’t tell from the biopsy result whether cancerous cells denote an aggressive tumour which requires immediate treatment, or a slow developing tumour which probably does not need any treatment. As a result, as I understand it, all patients with cancerous cells may generally be assumed to need immediate treatment, such as hormone replacement, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, even though 85-90% of them don’t need any treatment. Research papers suggest that in men in their 70s, 25% who have this treatment will become incontinent or impotent as a result. Many of these men will suffer these consequences despite the fact that they didn’t ever need the treatment they were subjected to.
It’s also worrying that at two hospital appointments the issue of what happens after the biopsy has not been raised, even though it was clear that both the people I saw thought I should have a biopsy. Maybe they would say that it would have been raised if and when I agreed to a biopsy, but given concerns about receiving unnecessary treatment, I feel it should have been raised at the time the issue of having a biopsy was raised. Would they have explained to me that if cancerous cells were found, they might not be able to tell whether I needed treatment or not? Would they have told me that there was a risk (if not a certainty?) that I would be ‘offered’ treatment that I might not need? Since they did not have that conversation with me I cannot answer those questions.
My psa is raised but not highly raised and it didn’t move up fast, so I feel it is not at present a firm indicator of the need for a prostate biopsy – it’s inconclusive. The only additional risk factor I have is that I smoke, and I suspect that is often overplayed by the NHS. According to NHS statistics, I should be suffering the ill effects of smoking by the age of 70, in the form of early signs of lung cancer, but when I had a chest scan a year ago it was clear. In addition I have an enlarged prostate – which was determined at my first hospital visit not to feel cancerous – which means I would have a heightened psa anyway.
I have been offered another appointment by the hospital in six months, and I am going to take that up, but unless things change I think that has to be the last for the moment. It’s pointless me trooping up to the hospital every six months when I don’t want a biopsy – which is all they can do by way of diagnosis – and there could be people with aggressive tumours urgently needing those appointments. So I need to decide over the next six months finally, whether I am going to have a biopsy or not.
The hospital has asked me to have another psa blood test before I go for the 6 month appointment, but I have asked my GP for three-monthly psa tests, so that I can get more of a feel for movement on the results before I go for the hospital appointment. If my psa is suddenly moving up rapidly over the next six months, then, depending how fast and how far it is moving, I may agree to a biopsy. Otherwise it is unlikely that I will, in which case there is not much point in the hospital continuing to see me – though I will ask my local surgery to continue monitoring me with 4 or 6-monthly psa tests.
At the age of 70 I still work full-time (for myself), and having unnecessary treatment for prostate cancer would certainly have far more of an impact on my life than having a slow developing prostate cancer which would not affect my health or life expectancy, and might even have more of an impact in the short term than having an aggressive prostate tumour. So it’s a numbers game. None of us is going to live forever, and at my age quality of life is more important than lifespan. Younger doctors especially often don’t take account of this, and assume that keeping you breathing, no matter what state you are in, is some sort of medical triumph. Not surprisingly, there are lots of older people who don’t see it that way!
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