Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The PSA Screening Quagmire - If Ignorance is Bliss then 'Tis Folly to be Wise?

The March 26th NEJM was a veritable treasure trove of interesting evidence so I can't stop after praising NICE-SUGAR and railing on intensive insulin therapy. If 6000 patients (40,000 screened) seemed like a commendable and daunting study to conduct, consider that the PLCO Project Team randomized over 76,000 US men to screening versus control ( and the ERSPC Investigators randomized over 162,000 European men in a "real-time meta-analysis" of sorts (wherein multiple simultaneous studies were conducted with similar but different enrollment requirements and combined; see:   This is, as the editorialist points out a "Hurculean effort" and that is fitting and poignant - because ongoing PSA screening efforts in current clinical practice represent a Hurculean effort to reduce morbidity and mortality of this disease and this reinforces the importance of the research question - are we wasting our time? Are we doing more harm than good?

The lay press was quick to start trumpeting the downfall of PSA screening with headlines such as "Prostate Test Found to Save Few Lives" . But for all their might, both of these studies give me, a longtime critic of cancer screening efforts, a good bit of pause. (Pulmonologists may be prone to "sour grapes" as a result of the failures of screening for lung cancer.)

Before I summarize briefly the studies and point out some interesting aspects of each, allow me to indulge in a few asides. First, I direct you to this interesting article in Medical Decision Making "Cure Me Even if it Kills Me". This wonderful study in judgment and decision making shows how difficult it is for patients to live with the knowledge that there is a cancer, however small growing in them. They want it out. And they want it out even if they are demonstrably worse off with it cut out or x-rayed out or whatever. It turns out that patients have a value for "getting rid of it" that probably arises from the emotional costs of living knowing there's a cancer in you. I highly recommend that anyone interested in cancer screening or treatment read this article.

This article invokes in me an unforgettable patient from my residency whom we screened in compliance with VA mandates at the time. Sure enough, this patient with heart disease had a mildly elevated PSA and sure enough he had a cancer on biopsy. And we discussed treatments in concert with our Urology colleagues. While he had many options, this patient agonized and brooded and could not live with the thought of a cancer in him He proceeded with radical prostatectomy, the most drastic of his options. And I will never forget that look of crestfallen resignation every time I saw him after that surgery because he thereafter came to clinic in diapers, having been rendered incontinent and impotent by that surgery. He was more full of self-flagellating regret than any other patient I have seen in my career. This poor man and his experience certainly jaded me at a young age and made me highly attuned to the pitfalls of PSA screening.

Against this backdrop where cancer is the most feared diagnosis in medicine, we feel an urge towards action to screen and prevent, even when there is a marginal net benefit of cancer screening, and even when other greater opportunities for improving health exist. I need not go into the literature about [ir]rational risk appraisal other than to say that our overly-exuberant fear of cancer (relative to other concerns) almost certainly leads to unrealistic hopes for screening and prevention. Hence the great interest in and attention to these two studies.

In summary, the PLCO study showed no reduction in prostate-cancer-related mortality from DRE (digital rectal examination) and PSA screening. Absence of evidence is not evidence, however, and a few points about this study deserve to be made:

~Because of high (and increasing) screening rates in the control group, this was essentially a study of the "dose" of screening. The dose in the control group was ~45 and that in the screening group was ~85%. So the question that the study asked was not really "does screening work" but rather "does doubling the dose of screening work". Had there been a favorable trend in this study, I would have been tempted to double the effect size of the screening to infer the true effect, reasoning that if increasing screening from 40% to 80% reduces prostate cancer mortality by x%, then increasing screening from 0% to 80% would reduce it by 2x%. Alas this was not the case with this study which was underpowered.

~I am very wary of studies that have cause-specific mortality as an endpoint. There's just too much room for adjudication bias, as the editorialist points out. Moreover, if you reduce prostate cancer mortality but overall mortality is unchanged, what do I, as a potential patient care? Great, you saved me from prostate cancer and I died at about the same time I would have but from an MI or a CVA instead? We have to be careful about whether our goals are good ones - the goal should not be to "fight cancer" but rather to "improve overall health". The latter, I admit, is a much less enticing and invigorating banner. We like to feel like we're fighting. (Admittedly, overall mortality appears to not differ in this study, but I'm at a loss as to what's really being reported in Table 4.) The DSMB for the ESRCP trial argue here that cancer specific mortality is most appropriate for screening trials because of dilution by other causes of mortality, and because screening for a specific cancer can only be expected to reduce mortality for that cancer. From an efficacy standpoint, I agree, but from an effectiveness standpoint, this position causes me to squint and tilt my head askance.

~It is so very interesting that this study was stopped not for futility, nor for harm, nor for efficacy, but because it was deemed necessary for the data to be released because of the [potential] impact on public health. And what has been the impact of those data? Utter confusion. That increasing screening from 40% to 80% does not improve prostate specific mortality does not say to me that we should reduce screening to 0%. In fact I don't know what to do, nor what to make of these data. Especially in the context of the next study.

In the ERSPC trial, investigators found a 20% reduction in prostate cancer deaths with screening with PSA alone in Europe. The same caveats regarding adjudication of this outcome notwithstanding, there are some very curious aspects of this trial that merit attention:

~This trial was, as I stated above, a "real-time meta-analysis" with many slightly different studies combined for analysis. I don't know what this does to internal or external validity because this is such an unfamiliar approach to me, but I'll be pondering it for a while I'm sure.

~I am concerned that I don't fully understand the way that interim analyses were performed in this trial, what the early stopping rules were, and whether a one-sided or two-sided alpha was used. Reference 6 states that it was one-sided but the index article says 2. Someone will have to help me out with the O'Brien-Fleming alpha spending function and let me know if 1% spending at each analysis is par for the course.

~As noted by the editorialist, we are not told what the "contamination rate" of screening in the control group is. If it is high, we might use my method described above to infer the actual impact of screening.

~Look at the survival curves that diverge and then appear to converge again at a low hazard rate. Is it any wonder that there is no impact on overall mortality?

So where does this all leave us? We have a population of physicians and patients that yearn for effective screening and believe in it, so much so that it is hard to conduct an uncontaminated study of screening. We have a US study that is stopped prematurely in order to inform public health, but which is inadequate to inform it. We have a European study which shows a benefit near the a priori expected benefit, but which has a bizarre design and is missing important data that we would like to consider before accepting the results. We have no hint of a benefit on overall mortality. We have lukewarm conclusions from both groups, and want desperately to know what the associated morbidities in each group are. We are spending vast amounts of resources and incurring an enormous emotional toll on men who live in fear after a positive PSA test, many of whom pay dearly ("a pound of flesh") to exorcise that fear. And we have a public over-reaction to the results of these studies which merely increase our quandary.

If ignorance is bliss, then truly 'tis folly to be wise. Perhaps this saying applies equally to individual patients, and the investigation of PSA screening in these large-scale trials. For my own part, this is one aspect of my health that I shall leave to fate and destiny, while I focus on more directly remediable aspects of preventive health, ones where the prevention is pleasurable (running and enjoying a Mediterranean diet) rather than painful (prostatectomy).


  1. You can call it fate and destiny but I would rather have a simple inexpensive PSA blood test early in life and live a long life. Why deny men who are eventually diagnosed with aggressive and/or large prostate cancer tumours, the right to realize the error of their ways soon enough? When men nod off after supper, should they be in blissful ignorance of a preventable but killer cancer, I think not.

  2. I guess I will have to pull these out and give it a read. I only read the abstracts. What was the racial breakdown for the European study? In my urban clinic I have been relying on PSA given the African American population that I see, and on prior studies indicating superior sensitivity of PSA to DRE.

  3. Looks like 4.5% African American in the US study, and no data for the European study. I know of no A.A. specific data regarding screening and mortality. I think that for my patient population I'm going to keep screening.