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Prostate Cancer Screening Debate Explored at HBCU Symposium

ATLANTA – At a gathering of renowned cancer experts, Dr. Shafiq A. Khan, director of the Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development at Clark Atlanta University, said Monday that, despite what you may hear, there should be no controversy over prostate cancer screening, especially in Black males.

“Our stand is very simple: early detection saves lives,” Khan said. “It’s very important for us to know. It’s our basic right to know our health status. If I have a cancer, I need to know that. And if PSA tests can help me know that, then I need to know that.”

As elementary as that may sound, there is disagreement in the medical community as to whether prostate cancer screening in men actually does more harm than good. For example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently issued an opinion in the American College of Physicians’ Annals of Internal Medicine that there is insufficient evidence to prove that prostate cancer screenings are helpful and may actually cause pain, discomfort and erectile dysfunction.

It was one of the main topics discussed during Clark Atlanta University’s Sixth Annual National Symposium on Prostate Cancer, a two-day conference, which ends today. Students, faculty and researchers from colleges and universities around the country gathered at the Thomas W. Cole Jr. Research Center for Science and Technology to hear from some of the nation’s most renowned experts on prostate cancer.

“I think this is probably the only conference of its kind in the country that focuses on prostate cancer,” Khan said. “Not just the biology, but also the educational part of it and also the community part of it.” 

“Our center is focused on prostate cancer and its impact on African and African-American communities,” Khan said. “So we bring all these people here to listen and discuss what’s going on. We started six years ago as a small meeting. It has now turned into a national symposium, and this is the only kind of national symposium on prostate cancer that we know of.”

Attendees have heard from luminaries such as Dr. David Satcher, the former Surgeon General and president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Dr. Michael Freeman of Harvard University.

But one of the main topics of conversation was the disagreement about the need for prostate cancer screenings, especially for Black males. Tuesday afternoon, doctors Rudy Lombard, of Chicago’s The Second Opinion Society; Nikhil Shah, of Saint Joseph’s Hospital of Atlanta; and Gail Prins, of the University of Illinois are participating in a panel discussion on the topic.

Khan said males of African and African-American backgrounds have the world’s highest rates of incidents and death from prostate cancer in the world.

“Compared to Caucasian men, African-American men die at the rate of two and a half more,” he said. “So they have the highest rates of cancer deaths in the community. The question is, if it is detected early, the chances are we can 100 percent cure that person.”

According to the USPSTF, they found “increasing evidence that treatment for prostate cancer detected by screening causes moderate-to-substantial harms, such as erectile dysfunction, urinary incontinence, bowel dysfunction and death. …There is also evidence that the screening process produces at least small harms, including pain and discomfort associated with prostate biopsy and psychological effects of false-positive test results.”

Dr. Curtis Pettaway, of the University of Texas’ Anderson Cancer Center, said during the conference he favored prostate cancer screenings.

“Clearly we know in at least one study where men were screened or not screened, we saw a 20 percent reduction in mortality and also a 40 percent decrease in the incidence of men establishing the disease,” he said.

Khan agreed.

“They are not the perfect tests,” he said. “They might give you some false results, here and there. But they are the only tests we have. And we know if you catch cancer in the early stages, it’s 100 percent curable. So I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t screen people and find out if they have cancer or not.”

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