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Prostate Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Evidence of Harms


These data lend credence to the concern that overdiagnosis of prostate cancer due to screening could lead to an increased risk of CVD mortality or suicide.

While there is no literature suggesting serious complications of digital rectal examination (DRE) or transrectal sonography, and the harms associated with venipuncture for PSA testing can be regarded as trivial, prostatic biopsies are associated with important complications. Transient fever, pain, hematospermia, and hematuria are all common, as are positive urine cultures.[4,5,6] Sepsis occurs in approximately 0.4% of cases.[5]

Long-term complications of radical prostatectomy include urinary incontinence, urethral stricture, erectile dysfunction, and the morbidity associated with general anesthesia and a major surgical procedure. Fecal incontinence can also occur. The associated mortality rate is reported to be 0.1% to 1%, depending on age. In the population-based Prostate Cancer Outcomes Study, 8.4% of 1,291 men were incontinent and 59.9% were impotent at 18 or 24 months following radical prostatectomy. More than 40% of men reported that their sexual performance was a moderate-to-large problem. Both sexual and urinary function varied by age, with younger men relatively less affected.[7]

Definitive external-beam radiation therapy can result in acute cystitis, proctitis, and sometimes enteritis. These are generally reversible but may be chronic. In the short-term, potency is preserved with irradiation in most cases but may diminish over time. A systematic review of evidence of complications of radiation therapy shows that 20% to 40% of men who had no erectile dysfunction before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterwards. Furthermore, 2% to 16% of men who had no urinary incontinence before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterward, and about 18% of men had some bowel dysfunction 1 year after treatment. The magnitude of effects of brachytherapy has not been determined, but the spectrum of complications are similar.[8] Radiation to the prostate has been reported to increase the risk of secondary malignancies, most notably of the rectum and bladder. While the relative risk in a large SEER-based study was 1.26 (95% CI, 1.21–1.30), the absolute increase in risk is low. The same review of evidence found hormone therapy with luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists reduces sexual function by 40% to 70%, and is associated with breast swelling in 5% to 25% of men. Hot flashes occur in 50% to 60% of men taking LHRH agonists. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Prostate Cancer Treatment for more information.)

Screening has increased the incidence of prostate cancer. In the current medical climate, most early-stage prostate cancers are treated by radical surgery or irradiation with intent to eradicate the pathology. There is evidence that not all patients diagnosed with prostate cancer as a consequence of screening are in immediate need of curative treatment. Death from other causes often occurs before screen detected, localized, and well-differentiated malignancies affect the survival of these patients. To avoid overtreatment and consequent morbid events, active surveillance (AS) is an emerging strategy applicable in these kinds of cases wherein curative treatment is delayed pending objective medical evidence of disease progression.


WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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