New Prostate Cancer Tests Look Promising

By Kim Smiley

One in six American men will be affected by prostate cancer during their life making prostate cancer the most common non-skin cancer.  Despite the number of people impacted by this disease, screening and treating prostate cancer remains problematic and even controversial at times.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, an intuitive format for performing a root cause analysis.  The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to fill in an Outline with the basic background information.  How the issue impacts the overall goals is also documented in the Outline.  In this example, there are several significant impacts that need to be considered.  The first is that it’s estimated that about 30,000 men will die from prostate cancer in the US in 2013.  The second major issue is that many men are treated unnecessarily for prostate cancer.  Unnecessary treatments are a waste of resources and the side effects cause significant suffering.  The next step of the Cause Mapping process is to build the actual Cause Map by asking “why” questions and laying out the causes visually to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  (To see a high level Cause Map for this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.)

One of the factors that leads to so many deaths from prostate cancer is that it is generally found at later stages.  Most patients have few symptoms with early stage prostate cancer and current screening methods for prostate cancer are far from perfect.  Conditions other than prostate cancer, such as enlarged prostates, can result in positives during blood tests for prostate cancer.   The positive indications of cancer then trigger needle biopsies in areas of the body no one wants biopsied.  Less than half of these follow up biopsies find cancer cells. Physical exams for prostate cancer are uncomfortable and usually only find larger cancers.  Additionally, many prostate cancers grow so slowly that they will not impact a patient’s life span and do not require treatment, but there is currently no test that can accurately determine whether a prostate cancer is dangerous.

This inability to distinguish between types of prostate cancer is what leads to so many being treated unnecessarily for prostate cancer.  Many patients opt for treatment once prostate cancer is found because they have no way of really knowing whether it’s safe to leave the cancer untreated.   But treatment is not without significant costs, both financially and in suffering.  Many of the prostate cancer treatments, such as radiation or surgery, can cause major side effects such as  incontinence or sexual dysfunction.  Most patients will willingly undergo treatment for life threatening cancers, but it’s terrible that some patients endure cancer treatments without need.

The final step in the Cause Mapping process is to find solutions.  In this example, the good news is that many researchers are working to develop better prostate cancer tests, which would rapidly lead to better patient care.   Better tests could save lives by finding prostate cancers earlier and could help reduce unnecessary treatment by identifying the more dangerous cancers.  A urine test for prostate cancer is now available that has been found to be more accurate than current screening methods.  Other research groups are working to develop other urine prostate tests with a focus on developing accurate, low cost tests that can be performed at home.  None of these tests are perfect yet, but they are a significant step in the right direction.