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When to Treat Prostate Cancer

“Too many men diagnosed with prostate cancer are treated unnecessarily, because we don’t know who needs to be treated and who doesn’t, so we end up overtreating most of them,” says Gary G. Schwartz, associate professor of cancer biology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

But that may now be about to change. Schwartz and colleagues reported in the February issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention that they have identified a new “biomarker” that may help men make a life-altering decision, whether to opt for radical surgery or radiation or to let the cancer go untreated—knowing that, in most cases, prostate cancer is slow-growing and will never become fatal. After studying the medical records of 6,710 men over a period of five or more years, the researchers found that those with the highest ionized calcium levels in their bloodstream were three times more likely to die of prostate cancer than those with the least amount of the calcium.

Also called free calcium, ionized calcium is calcium in the blood that is not attached to proteins. Although the findings are preliminary, the authors suggest that the research could lead to a relatively simple way to distinguish between aggressive and nonaggressive prostate cancers. John A. Baron, M.D., of Dartmouth Medical School, who has studied the relationship between calcium and colon cancer says: “These results are fascinating. However, they must now be followed up and confirmed by more work.”

Joan Rattner Heilman writes about health and consumer issues.

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