PSA test for prostate cancer

Getting the results and understanding them

Men usually got their PSA results from their GP, from the practice nurse, or from a receptionist, either face-to-face, by phone or by email. A man who had had a number of blood tests for a company health check received his results by post. 

One man was upset because one of the practice office staff told him that his results had been mislaid and then later told him that there was a query about one of the measurements. A phone call from the GP put his mind at rest.

Some men explained that they had PSA tests regularly as part of their follow-up after treatment for cancer. They were often given their test results when they attended an outpatient clinic at the hospital.

PSA test results are usually reported as nanogrammes of PSA per millilitre (ng/ml) of blood. The older the man the higher the PSA level is likely to be, whether or not there is any cancer present. So what is 'normal' depends to some extent on a man's age. The prostate cancer risk management programme says that men with a PSA greater than or equal to 3ng/ml and aged between 50-59 years should be referred for further tests.

Some of the men we talked to were well informed and felt they understood their PSA results. One man worked for the pharmaceutical industry and got information about the PSA test at work. A few had looked at websites, such as that of The National Cancer Institute, in the USA.

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Others had obtained information from Prostate Cancer UK or Cancerbackup (now merged with Macmillan Cancer Support).

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Men who had a 'normal' PSA result, were usually quite satisfied with the information and advice they received from their GP or practice nurse, though one said he was uncertain whether or not he should return for another PSA test at a later date (see 'The pros and cons of a national screening programme for prostate cancer'). 

And some of those who were later diagnosed with cancer spoke highly of the way in which their GPs had given them their PSA results. 

However, other men felt confused about their PSA results and some thought that doctors should provide much more information. Some men had not received information about the 'normal range' for a PSA test result. A few seemed unconcerned about this but others would have liked more clarity. Men who thought that the PSA test would be 'positive' or 'negative' in detecting cancer were surprised to find that further tests were needed before prostate cancer could be diagnosed. 

One man was aware that his PSA level had risen while he waited for treatment for his cancer, but he wasn't sure if this was something to worry about. The significance of a single PSA rise is uncertain. It may have no significance because PSA appears to fluctuate naturally. The relevance of a raised PSA only becomes apparent over time, with several PSA results available to compare. Clearly a rising PSA could represent disease progression but alternatively may reflect the presence of some sub-clinical infection or inflammation in the prostate.  

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2016.


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