Steve Chapman

How can that be? Several reasons: The test often yields false positives, it can't tell if the cancer is truly dangerous, and surgery doesn't always work. A lot of patients get treated for cancers that won't kill them, and others get treated for cancers that will kill them anyway.

Richard Ablin, a scientist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, discovered the enzyme that the test picks up. But he wrote last year in The New York Times that PSA screening is "a hugely expensive public health disaster."

Some 20 million men get the test each year, to find out something that will almost certainly do them no good. We assume that knowledge is always a boon. But this time, it isn't.

The prevailing approach to prostate cancer illustrates our collective disregard for medical expense. Some $3 billion a year is spent in this country for PSA screening, with Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration often picking up the tab.

That doesn't count the cost of the roughly 85,000 surgeries done each year on cancerous prostates, or the expense of treatment for the side effects that often ensue. The federal task force didn't factor finances into its recommendation. But the rest of us ought to.

Unfortunately, it's hard to picture any politician demanding that the federal government stop burning cash for tests that are more to be feared than welcomed. As we learned from the uproar over Obama's alleged "death panels," many Americans think when it comes to medical care, more is better and less is an atrocity.

But maybe when this new information sinks in, men will realize they will be better off telling their doctors to dispense with this test. Or, to borrow a phrase: Don't touch my junk.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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