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What are the benefits and limitations of testing for prostate cancer?

Almost every test or procedure has benefits and limitations. You might think of these as pros and cons. Before having any test, it’s important to be aware of them so that you’re making an informed decision that’s right for you. Testing for prostate cancer early – before you have any symptoms – is your choice. But deciding whether to have the test can be confusing.

Benefits of PSA testing
  • PSA testing reassures you if the result is normal.
  • If the result is higher than what is normal for your age, it tells you that you need further testing.
  • PSA testing may help find prostate cancer early before you have symptoms.
  • PSA testing may help find cancer before it spreads beyond the prostate when it is easier to treat.
Limitations of PSA testing
  • Sometimes the PSA test suggests you have prostate cancer when you don’t (called a false positive).
  • The PSA test may not detect cancer even if you have it (called a false negative).
  • PSA testing can’t tell how dangerous the prostate cancer is.
  • PSA testing may find a type of prostate cancer that grows slowly and may never cause problems or need treatment (overdiagnosis).
  • PSA testing may lead to unnecessary treatment that can have side effects.

Prostate cancers that grow very slowly are low risk, and you may not need active treatment (surgery, drugs or radiation) right away. Instead your doctor may recommend active surveillance, which means they will watch the cancer closely rather than treating it right away.

Some men may find it stressful to know they have cancer but aren’t being treated for it. But sometimes the side effects from treatment can be harmful.

Image of a stethoscope and clipboard.

It’s your decision

Research has not yet clearly shown if the benefits of testing for prostate cancer outweigh the limitations. Because of this, different health and advocacy groups have conflicting messages and there are different practices among doctors. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what is right for you.