Clarifying uncertainty regarding detection and treatment of early-stage prostate cancer

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Detection and treatment of prostate cancer can theoretically identify and cure a potentially disabling and deadly disease. However, controversy exists primarily because of the absence of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) documenting that these strategies improve survival and quality of life. In the absence of definitive information from RCTs, patients seek information and recommendations from many sources. Physicians have an opportunity to help patients and their families sort through the vast array of conflicting and confusing information. Rather then recommending for or against routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, physicians should provide men who are interested in prostate cancer testing, 50 years of age and older, and have a life expectancy of at least 10 to 15 years, with balanced information about the potential benefits and established harms of screening, diagnosis, and treatment. Validated informational materials can effectively and efficiently promote shared decision making. For early prostate cancer detection, the minimum information should include: the likelihood that prostate cancer will be diagnosed, possibilities of false-positive and false-negative results, anxiety associated with a positive test, and uncertainty regarding whether screening reduces the risk for death from prostate cancer. For men with localized prostate cancer, acceptable treatment options include radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy, cryotherapy, early androgen-suppression therapy, and watchful waiting. These are all considered acceptable options because data do not provide clear-cut evidence for the superiority of any 1 treatment. The only RCT comparing surgery to watchful waiting, though of relatively small size and conducted before PSA testing, showed no difference in survival after 23 years of follow-up. Watchful waiting does not remove prostate cancer, may miss an opportunity to cure or delay disease progression, and may lead to increased patient anxiety. However, watchful waiting avoids the harmful side effects of early intervention and does provide palliative therapy if and when symptomatic disease progression occurs. Furthermore, intervention is not necessary in the vast majority of men because most prostate cancers do not cause mortality or serious morbidity. Therefore, quality of life in many men treated with watchful waiting is superior to those treated with early intervention. For the minority of men with prostate cancer likely to cause disability or death, early intervention options may not be effective. Although commonly used in other countries, watchful waiting is rarely recommended in the United States. The opportunity exists to resolve the confusion, close the gaps in knowledge, and enhance prostate cancer care by conducting RCTs. Until these RCTs are completed, physicians can assist patients by providing a balanced presentation of the known risks and potential but unproven benefits of detection and treatment options and incorporating patient preferences into health care decisions. This is a US government work. There are no restrictions on its use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-17
Number of pages8
JournalSeminars in Urologic Oncology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Early detection
  • Expectant management
  • Prostate cancer
  • Randomized controlled trials
  • Shared decision making
  • Treatment


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