Panel drops its objections to more prostate cancer screenings

PHILADELPHIA -- A government advisory panel has dropped its objection to routine prostate cancer screenings for millions of middle-aged and elderly men, saying it is possible the tests save lives.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force stopped short of recommending the exams, citing continuing uncertainty about their value. But it abandoned a 1996 opinion that said they are not effective enough to justify their cost.

Studies done over the past 10 years indicate that some and probably most tumors discovered during the screenings are so small and slow-growing they are unlikely to do any harm to patients, the panel said in Tuesday's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Some studies have indicated that when dangerous tumors do turn up, the death rates are generally the same among men who had regular screenings and those who didn't go to a doctor until they developed symptoms. Other studies have said that those who get the screenings have a higher survival rate.

Based on those mixed findings, the task force said there is not enough evidence to recommend either for or against routine screenings every year or two.

"Men should be informed of the gaps in the evidence, and they should be assisted in considering their personal preferences and risk profile before deciding whether to be tested," the group said.

A number of groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, already recommend that doctors discuss the pros and cons of screenings with their patients, and decide whether to do them on a case-by-case basis.