Prostate cases treble in 20 years: But as more are diagnosed with cancer, fewer men die
Just 14,000 diagnosed two decades ago before a new screening programme started
But scientists say better
test needed to help detect prostate cancers that actually need
treatingMen should get counselling about the uncertainties positive screening can raise, expert says

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UPDATED:

23:58 GMT, 3 May 2012

More than 40,000 men are being diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK every year, figures show.

The number of new cases annually has almost trebled since 1989 when it stood at 14,000, according to the charity Cancer Research UK.

This increase is mainly due to greater use of the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test, which measures levels of a chemical that is high when tumours are present.

Detection: A magnified image of a prostate cancer cell

Detection: A magnified image of a prostate cancer cell

But although the test has been
credited with detecting some deadly cancer cases earlier, there are
concerns it often causes 'false alarms'.

Some two-thirds of men with raised
PSA levels do not have prostate cancer. They are forced to undergo
further unpleasant examinations to determine whether or not they have
the illness.

And even these checks will not necessarily determine whether or not the cancer is aggressive and life-threatening.

It means that thousands of men will
undergo surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy – which have debilitating
side-effects – for cancers which may never have caused a problem.

Warning: Professor Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research UK's prostate cancer expert

Warning: Professor Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research UK's prostate cancer expert

Professor Malcolm Mason, of Cancer
Research UK, said: 'Accurately diagnosing and predicting the need for
treatment of prostate cancer is fraught with difficulties and there is
no escaping the fact that we need a better tool than PSA to help detect
prostate cancers that actually need treating.

'Men need to be counselled about the upsides and downsides of having a PSA test and the uncertainties that it can raise.

'We urgently need to find better
tests that tell us more about a man's prostate cancer. Is the disease
going to sit quietly in the background and never cause a problem or do
we need to treat it aggressively

'If we can accurately answer these
questions, we could spare thousands of men unnecessary treatment that
can lead to side-effects like impotence and incontinence.'

Earlier this week American researchers
claimed that surgery to remove prostate cancer is often ineffective. A
study involving 731 patients found that those who had operations were
only 3 per cent more likely still to be alive 12 years later compared to
those who didn't have treatment.

The researchers from the University of Minnesota said this increase could well be down to chance.

Complex: Prostate cancer cells can be slow growing with no radical treatment needed, but in others, early surgery or radiotherapy is vital

Complex: Prostate cancer cells can be slow growing with no radical treatment needed, but in others, early surgery or radiotherapy is vital

There is no national screening
programme for prostate cancer in the UK but men who want a PSA test can
request one from their GP.

Figures from Cancer Research UK also
show that the death rate from prostate cancer has fallen by 11 per cent
in the past ten years.

Prostate cancer is the second most
common form of the illness in men after lung cancer. Although it leads
to 10,000 deaths a year, in about 50 per cent of cases the cancer is
growing so slowly it is not life-threatening.

The PSA test involves a sample of
blood being taken and measured for levels of the prostate specific
antigen.

But there are many reasons why readings can be high and it is
not necessarily due to the presence of cancer.

A urine infection can lead to a
positive result, for example. And some men have subsequently been
diagnosed with cancer even though their PSA test was normal.

Earlier this year the NHS rationing
body NICE controversially decided to reject a drug for advanced prostate
cancer even though it can give patients precious extra months of life.

The watchdog ruled in February that abiraterone was too expensive for
use in England at 35,000 per patient per year.