How a PSA test saved Ben Stiller's life

Just a few months ago, Ben Stiller shocked his fans, movie lovers and the wider world by revealing that, at the tender age of 48, he had a scary brush with prostate cancer.

The Hollywood funnyman is not alone. After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the number 1 cancer among men, affecting over 160,000 people in Stiller’s native USA. And in Australia, there were about 18,000 diagnoses of prostate cancer in 2016, including almost 3,400 deaths.

According to Cancer Australia, in Australia, prostate cancer is actually the most diagnosed cancer of all, beating bowel, breast, melanoma and lung cancer.

Luckily, as Ben Stiller himself will tell you, the news is not all scary. So let’s dive in and take a closer look.

What is prostate cancer?

By the age of 85, 1 in 5 Australian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. About the size of a walnut, the prostate is a gland of the male body involved in the production of semen, located just beneath the bladder.

Men can be alerted to the potential of prostate cancer by frequent urination, pain when urinating, blood in the urine, a weak stream and the feeling that the bladder is not being fully emptied, or more serious symptoms that may indicate advanced disease.

Prostate detection

As with many forms of cancer, the earlier prostate cancer can be detected, the better the chance of survival. Indeed, the five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is 94%, and the outcome improves even more the earlier the cancer can be caught and treated.

There are two main tests for detecting prostate cancer. One is a digital rectal examination, which involves a doctor inserting a finger in the rectum to feel the gland. But this is not entirely accurate because not all cancers can be easily felt.

The PSA test

The other is called the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test. And it’s this test that saved Ben Stiller’s life.

“I was (eventually) able to wrap my head around the fact that I was incredibly fortunate,” he wrote in a blog last October. “Fortunate because my cancer was detected early enough to treat.

“Taking the PSA test saved my life. Literally. That’s why I am writing this now,” Stiller said.

In reality, the PSA test is extremely simple – it’s just a blood test. The blood is tested for PSA, which is a protein that is mainly found in semen. So if there are high levels of PSA in the blood, that is an indicator of prostate cancer.

In Stiller’s case, the results of the PSA test prompted referrals for an MRI scan and a biopsy, which confirmed his cancer. He was treated and is now cancer-free.

“I count my blessings that I had a doctor who presented me with these options,” he continued to write. “I believe the best way to determine a course of action for the most treatable, yet deadly cancer, is to detect it early.”

The PSA test controversy

But as Stiller also points out, there is some “controversy” surrounding the PSA test, particularly among men who do not have symptoms. That’s because the risk of prostate cancer is lower in men like Stiller who were under 50, and the treatments can involve side effects including nerve and muscle damage, incontinence, and erectile and libido dysfunction.

It is also true that a PSA test can produce alarming results even if there is no prostate cancer, causing stress and even the undergoing of risky and invasive tests. And if cancer is detected over the age of 70, it may be that treatments causing side effects are undergone by older men in which the disease would not have otherwise quickly advanced.

Here at Katelaris Urology, we point out that the current guidelines are that men who do not have symptoms, who understand the risks and are aged between 50 and 69 should get a PSA test every two years. If you’re concerned, contact us today to be advised further.