Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Bad gen on the antigen

I’m a loyal follower of The Times: I worked for it for 14 years. I’m also a great supporter of prostate cancer support and research: my father died of the condition.
So you’d have thought I’d be rejoicing about the fact that this year The Times Christmas Appeal is supporting Prostate Cancer UK. But I’m not. Why?
Because it seems the charity is using this wonderful opportunity to raise money for research, to promote messages about prostate cancer which are unhelpful and possibly damaging.
This week the journal Biomarkers in Medicine pointed to the shortcomings of the PSA (prostate specific antigen) test in diagnosing prostate cancer or indicating its aggression. It highlighted the need to find new biomarkers that would provide doctors with a genuinely useful test – one that wouldn’t throw up vast numbers of false positives, and expose men to tests and treatments that could leave them unnecessarily impotent, incontinent or in pain. Such a test currently does not exist.
The prostate specific antigen. Pic: EAS 
Yet here in the same week is Owen Sharp, Chief Executive of Prostate Cancer UK, quoted in an article in The Times to launch the appeal:
“Low awareness of the PSA test means that lives may be lost every single day because men don’t know what is already available to them,” he said.
“We know that GPs are turning men away and talking them out of it. It’s not the majority but it’s about one in eight. Some of them don’t believe in the PSA test. We have calls from men about this all the time and I spoke to a man last week who had a stand-up row with his GP to get the test. We need to be very clear that having had the conversation, it is men’s choice and they shouldn’t be turning men away.”
A more responsible approach might be to support GPs who are not rushing men into having a potentially damaging test; to make clear that the PSA test is the bluntest of instruments; to stress that this is exactly why all of us need to support the quest for a new test.
Thankfully, Rosemary Bennett, the Times journalist who wrote the piece, had the sense to put Sharp’s words into context with comment from GPs about the dangers of PSA testing.
And they say it’s journalists who over-simplify...