Prostate cancer is the second largest cause of cancer death in Australian men after lung cancer. It is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australians overall (apart from non-melanoma skin cancer1).

Prostate cancer is more common in older men and those with a family history of the disease. Early detection and treatment can significantly improve prostate cancer survival. There are, however, no tests available with sufficient accuracy to screen populations of men for early signs of prostate cancer.

The tests most commonly used to aid early detection of prostate cancer are the prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test and digital rectal examination. Neither test, used separately or in tandem, is accurate enough to distinguish potentially fatal cancers from benign tumours. Both tests also miss harmful cancers.

While some studies suggest PSA reduces mortality on a population basis, the test picks up large numbers of cancers that would have caused no symptoms or harm in the patient. This is known as overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis of prostate cancer can lead to unnecessary treatments that have side effects such as sexual impotence, urinary incontinence and bowel problems.

Men concerned about prostate cancer should talk to their doctor and make an informed choice about whether to have one of the tests designed to find early signs of prostate cancer, in view of the potential risks and benefits.