The first four words of the subtitle of our book, Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers are, “No More Unnecessary Biopsies.” At the appropriate time, a biopsy is an essential diagnostic tool. Unfortunately, however, far too many urologists still schedule an immediate biopsy if there is even a slight rise in PSA. And that has led to a multi-billion dollar industry bent on administering treatment to every kind of prostate cancer, whether it is life-threatening or not.
So what do you need to know before agreeing to submit to a biopsy? There are several possible reasons for an elevated PSA besides cancer:
1. A prostate infection, in which case a simple course of antibiotics may be all it takes to lower PSA into the normal range. Years ago my PSA went zooming up from an infection.
2. PSA rises after sexual activity, so abstinence is necessary a day or two prior to testing.
3. Recent bicycle riding activity can cause an elevated PSA.
4. An enlarged prostate—aka Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia, or BPH—usually results in an elevated PSA. More than half the biopsies in the U.S. are performed for evaluation of an elevated PSA coming from BPH.
5. A random laboratory error is always a possibility, and occurs more often than we realize.
So rather than triggering the scheduling of an immediate biopsy, an “abnormal” PSA should set a risk-assessment process in motion. The first step is to eliminate any of the above possible causes—checking for an infection, repeating the PSA to see if a lab error caused the elevation, performing an ultrasound scan to determine the size of the prostate to see how much BPH is present, and to determine whether the ratio between PSA and prostate size is in the expected range.
If these measures all fail to explain the elevated PSA, further testing—with an OPKO-4K blood test that is specific for high-grade cancer—should be considered before resorting to a biopsy. Other useful procedures prior to undertaking a biopsy are color Doppler ultrasound and/or multiparametric MRI. Imaging studies provide an accurate measure of the prostate size so that the PSA “density” (PSA elevation in the context of prostate size) can be calculated. If the OPKO-4k, PSA density and imaging are favorable, then surveillance with periodic PSA and imaging, may be preferable to an immediate biopsy.
You have probably realized by now that I am not a fan of biopsies.They can be painful, can cause erectile dysfunction, and fail to spot cancer as much as 20% of the time, especially in men with large prostates. But the main reason I am against unnecessary biopsies is because of the unnecessary radical prostatectomies that usually follow—estimated at above 80,000 annually in the U.S. alone. Having a biopsy is like opening Pandora’s box.
According to Thomas Stamey, M.D., who developed the PSA blood test, prostate cancer is a disease that almost all men get if they live long enough. So the older the man, the more likely a biopsy will reveal cancer. But that doesn’t mean every man should have his prostate removed. However, only too often, that is what happens. The treatment of choice of most urologists is surgery (they are, after all, surgeons), and most men yield to the emotional appeal of “cutting it out.” This unfortunate situation is what led to Stamey’s famous quote: “When the final chapter of this disease is written, it will prove that never in the history of oncology will so many men have been so over treated for one disease.”
An unwarranted biopsy is the first stop on the Overtreatment Express.