In the wake of Ben Stiller’s announcement about his 2014 diagnosis with prostate cancer and the test that “saved his life,” men are asking themselves what is a PSA test and do they need it? Stiller’s declaration has stirred the cancer community and has put prostate cancer smack in the media spotlight. His candid essay on Medium has roused debate and awareness for this men’s health issue.
A PSA test, which Stiller credits for his early detection, is a blood test that measures how much prostate specific antigen substance is being produced by an individual’s prostate. When levels return high, it can be an indicator of prostate cancer. The test is typically not administered until a man is over the age of 50. Stiller was in his 40s when the test was given and had none of the precipitating symptoms that would make someone receive testing early. His doctor suggested an initial test as a baseline. Over time his numbers crept up which led to further testing and an eventual diagnosis and treatment.
Typically only men in a high-risk category are tested earlier than standards suggest. Those considered high-risk are African-American men and anyone with an immediate relative has been diagnosed with prostate cancer at a young age. Stiller credits his doctor for thinking outside of what is recommended and thinking of his care first, “If he had followed the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines, I would have never gotten tested at all, and not have known I had cancer until it was way too late to treat successfully.”
You would think the American Cancer Society would be pleased to have a celebrity bringing awareness to this cause and a preventative test. But, it seems they are feeling quite the opposite. When Otis Brawley, their chief medical officer, was interviewed by CNN, he cautioned against the test and its many drawbacks. “The thing Ben Stiller doesn’t understand is that his case is based on one positive experience.”
Brawley goes on to explain that PSA tests can sometimes miss cancer or report false positives. They’re not the end-all be-all for preventative testing and errors may lead to treatment that is unnecessary. Not to mention, the physical and emotional toll the tests can take on a man. Brawley doesn’t seem to come out against the test but explains he hopes better testing options will be discovered and put into use.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men in the US, with skin cancer being the first according to the National Cancer Institute. When detected early and treated successfully survival rates are over 95%. Any form of cancer is serious but most men diagnosed with prostate cancer will not die from it. Nearly 2.9M men in the United States have been diagnosed and are still alive today.
It has commonly been regarded as a disease older men face. Six out of 10 men are over 65 when the cancer is detected. Stiller’s article illustrates that it isn’t always the case. He is urging for testing in your 40s.
But don’t go jumping to conclusions. It is always best to discuss testing options with your doctor and avoid any unnecessary alarm. Stiller does a service by being frank about his experience, but your health care is always up to you. Use his story as a catalyst to look into the issue further. Pay attention to your body, get regular physicals, and talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of been tested as part of your overall health care plan.