There are typically two tests used to help doctors screen for prostate cancer. They are:
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. The PSA test measures the level of PSA in the blood. The doctor takes a blood sample, and the amount of PSA is measured in a laboratory. Because PSA is produced by the body and can be used to detect disease, it is sometimes called a biological marker or a tumor marker.
It is normal for men to have a low level of PSA in their blood; however, prostate cancer or benign (not cancerous) conditions can increase a man’s PSA level. As men age, both benign prostate conditions and prostate cancer become more common. The most frequent benign prostate conditions are prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or enlargement of the prostate. There is no evidence that prostatitis or BPH causes cancer, but it is possible for a man to have one or both of these conditions and to develop prostate cancer as well.
A man’s PSA level alone does not give doctors enough information to distinguish between benign prostate conditions and cancer. However, the doctor will take the result of the PSA test into account when deciding whether to check further for signs of prostate cancer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the PSA test along with a digital rectal exam (DRE) to help detect prostate cancer. During a DRE, a doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate gland through the rectal wall to check for bumps or abnormal areas. Doctors often use the PSA test and DRE as prostate cancer screening tests; together, these tests can help doctors detect prostate cancer in men who have no symptoms of the disease
PSA testing may identify very slow-growing tumors that are unlikely to threaten a man's life. Also, PSA testing may not help a man with a fast-growing or aggressive cancer that has already spread to other parts of his body before being detected.
False-positive tests. False-positive test results (also called false positives) occur when the PSA level is elevated but no cancer is actually present. False positives may lead to additional medical procedures that have potential risks and significant financial costs and can create anxiety for the patient and his family. Most men with an elevated PSA test result turn out not to have cancer.
False-negative tests. False-negative test results (also called false negatives) occur when the PSA level is in the normal range even though prostate cancer is actually present. Most prostate cancers are slow-growing and may exist for decades before they are large enough to cause symptoms. Subsequent PSA tests may indicate a problem before the disease progresses significantly.
Scientists are also researching ways to improve the PSA test, hopefully to allow cancerous and benign conditions, as well as slow-growing cancers and fast-growing, potentially lethal cancers, to be distinguished from one another.
It is important to note that screening cannot diagnose prostate cancer. Only a biopsy can diagnose prostate cancer. If cancer is suspected, a biopsy is needed to determine whether cancer is present in the prostate. During a biopsy, samples of prostate tissue are removed, usually with a needle, and viewed under a microscope.