Did you know that Prostate Specific Antigen, better known as PSA, is an enzyme produced by the prostate? If you’re a women not familiar with prostate issues, you may be thinking, “so what.” But if you’re a man approaching middle age, you need to get familiar with PSA. Get to know it like the back of your hand. Your PSA level can help determine your chance of developing prostate cancer.

Over the last year or so, you’ve probably read a series of articles about mammograms, pap smears and PSA tests. At what age do you need to be tested? You may be totally confused, based on conflicting opinions from experts. In the absence of any stunning breakthrough in prostate cancer research, the PSA blood test and digital rectal exam remain the best screening methods to catch an early-stage tumor, which is confined to the prostate.

While a prostate biopsy is the only certain way to diagnose prostate cancer, urologists still depend on the two screening tests. Dr. Barry Buffman, a board certified urologist with Boston Medical Group Los Angeles, says the PSA test has been used for many years. Before PSA, a lot of men would present with advanced disease. “If anything, PSA allowed us, as it evolved, to pick up earlier disease, that was more treatable,”says Buffman, Even so, PSA is not always specific to prostate cancer. A bump in the PSA, adds Buffman, can also come from prostate enlargement and prostate inflammation.

Patients may wonder what is a “normal” PSA reading. “It’s not cut and dry,” according to Buffman, in an interview with Men and Health: It’s a Guy Thing. Traditionally, that number has been 4 or lower. But some urologists prefer a reading closer to 3. “Everybody looks at these numbers a little differently, due to their own professional experiences and their own biases.” Buffman says what’s important is PSA velocity, or the change in the amount of PSA over a period of time.

What happens when a man approaches middle age? Buffman says if you’re between 40 and 45, and have no family history of prostate cancer, you may only need a digital rectal exam. For men 45 and over, a PSA test would be practical to establish a baseline count. For African-Americans, and those with a family history of the disease, the first PSA test, says Buffman, should be done at a younger age, closer to 40. And any change in urinary symptoms (including stream, difficulty, bleeding and pain) should prompt a visit to the doctor. While more men are becoming aware of the prostate, a walnut-sized gland between the bladder and rectum, Buffman says, “usually it takes a prompting from the doctor to ask a battery of questions…most men, unless they’re really having a lot of symptoms, don’t bring up the subject.”

Buffman is encouraged that more people are aware of screening. ” I think the public is much more educated today than they’ve previously been, and so they’re much more aware of screening tests and the ability to be proactive and to prevent later, or aggressive disease.”

Visit Dr. Buffman at http://losangeles.bostonmedicalgroup.com

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