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Prostate tests can be prescription for real harm

Terry Dyroff's PSA blood test led to a prostate biopsy that didn't find cancer but gave him a life-threatening infection.

In the emergency room, "I didn't sit, I just laid on the floor, I felt so bad," said Dyroff, 65, a retired professor from Silver Spring, Md. "I honestly thought I might be dying."

Donald Weaver was a healthy 74-year-old Kansas farmer until doctors went looking for prostate cancer. A PSA test led to a biopsy and surgery, then a heart attack, organ failure and a coma. His grief-stricken wife took him off life support.

"He died of unnecessary preventive medicine," said his nephew, Dr. Jay Siwek, vice chairman of family medicine at Georgetown University. "Blood tests can kill you."

Since Friday, when a task force of independent scientists said routine PSA testing does more harm than good, urologists who make a living treating prostate cancer have rushed to defend the test, as have patients who believe it saved their lives.

Less visible are men who have been harmed by testing, as Dyroff and Weaver were. The harm is not so much from the test itself but from everything it triggers — biopsies that usually are false alarms, and treatments that leave many men incontinent or impotent for cancers that in most cases were not a threat.

Once a PSA test suggests a problem, many men can't live with the worry that they might have cancer. And once cancer is found, most men feel they have to treat it, usually at the urging of their urologist.

"There are many men who have had serious consequences from treatment. Those stories don't get told and they are not uncommon," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, which thinks the task force reached "an appropriate conclusion" about the PSA test.

Prostate tests can be prescription for real harm 10/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 7:03pm]

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