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Prostate cancer screening: New data support watchful waiting

Prostate cancer aggressiveness may be established when the tumor is formed and not alter with time, according to a study published in Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Researchers found that after the introduction of widespread prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening, the proportion of patients diagnosed with advanced-stage cancers dropped by more than six-fold in 22 years, but the proportion diagnosed with high Gleason grade cancers did not change substantially. This suggests that low-grade prostate cancers do not progress to higher grade over time.

Cancer stage refers to the extent or spread of the disease, and cancer grade, called Gleason grade for prostate cancer, refers to the aggressiveness of the disease.

"We were able to look at finely stratified time periods to capture pre-PSA, early-PSA, and late-PSA eras within one study. Over time, because of PSA screening, men have been more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer at an earlier stage, before the disease has had an opportunity to grow and spread. If Gleason grade also progressed over time, we would expect a similar decrease in high Gleason grade disease over time," said Kathryn Penney, Sc.D., instructor in medicine at the Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Mass. "We were surprised by just how constant the incidence of high-grade disease has been over time."

This study adds more evidence to the argument that patients who are diagnosed with low-grade prostate cancers can opt for an active surveillance, or "watch and wait" approach instead of getting treated right away.

Penney and colleagues used data from 420 participants recruited to the Physicians' Health Study and 787 participants recruited to the ongoing Health Professionals Follow-up Study. All participants were diagnosed with prostate cancer between 1982 and 2004, and treated with surgery. The researchers reanalyzed prostate tissue collected from these patients to assess Gleason grade.

The researchers divided the data into four time periods based on when the participants received a diagnosis and treatment: 1982-1993, 1993-1996, 1996-2000, and 2000-2004, to represent the pre-PSA and PSA eras. They found that the number of participants who had undergone PSA screening increased from 42 percent in 1994 to 81 percent in 2000.

They also found that the number of late-stage cancers decreased from 19.9 percent in the 1982-1993 group to just 3 percent in the 2000-2004 group, reflecting an 85 percent drop in stage at diagnosis. However, there was only a moderate decrease in high Gleason grade cancers, from 25.3 percent in the 1982-1993 group to 17.6 percent in the 2000-2004 group, reflecting a 30 percent drop.

With further analyses, the researchers found that the moderate drop in high Gleason grade cancers was not because progression to more aggressive disease was prevented through screening, but because of an increased diagnosis of low-grade disease that would not have been detected without PSA screening.

"Radical prostatectomy or radiation therapy, the usual treatments for prostate cancer, can have negative side effects such as impotence and incontinence; choosing active surveillance could prevent this decline in quality of life," said Penney. "Men with low-grade disease at diagnosis should seriously consider talking with their doctors about active surveillance."

To interview Kathryn Penney, contact Marjorie Montemayor-Quellenberg at or 617-534-2208. For other inquiries, contact Jeremy Moore at or 215-446-7109.

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About the American Association for Cancer Research
Founded in 1907, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) is the world's oldest and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research and its mission to prevent and cure cancer. AACR membership includes more than 34,000 laboratory, translational, and clinical researchers; population scientists; other health care professionals; and cancer advocates residing in more than 90 countries. The AACR marshals the full spectrum of expertise of the cancer community to accelerate progress in the prevention, biology, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer by annually convening more than 20 conferences and educational workshops, the largest of which is the AACR Annual Meeting with more than 18,000 attendees. In addition, the AACR publishes eight peer-reviewed scientific journals and a magazine for cancer survivors, patients, and their caregivers. The AACR funds meritorious research directly as well as in cooperation with numerous cancer organizations. As the scientific partner of Stand Up To Cancer, the AACR provides expert peer review, grants administration, and scientific oversight of team science and individual grants in cancer research that have the potential for near-term patient benefit. The AACR actively communicates with legislators and policymakers about the value of cancer research and related biomedical science in saving lives from cancer. For more information about the AACR, visit

Jeremy Moore | EurekAlert!
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