A technician looks at images from an ultrasound machine that helps doctors to diagnose and guide treatment of prostate cancer. Picture: AP

Gary Pettit considers himself to be one of the fortunate ones.

Six years ago he was offered a private medical examination by his new employer.

Even though he was just 42, a blood test revealed high levels of PSA - a protein linked to prostate cancer.

“I had no symptoms and if I had not had that medical it would never have been picked up,” he said.

“I consider myself to be very lucky.”

A biopsy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in west London confirmed that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

A month later, in May 2012, Pettit, 48, from Loughton in Essex, had his prostate removed in an eight-hour operation.

He is now clear of the disease and is not on medication, although he needs regular check-ups, is occasionally incontinent and has suffered from impotence.

With no national screening programme for prostate cancer, most men only have a PSA test if they show symptoms, when it may be too late for effective treatment.

Pettit said: “It has all gone incredibly well for me. But others are not so lucky. It is astonishing prostate cancer is now a bigger killer than breast cancer.

“There is so much awareness about breast cancer. But there is still a big taboo about prostate cancer.

“It is a bloke-ish tendency to bury your head in the sand and not talk about it.

“For me there was no middle ground. I never had symptoms and when I was tested it was quite aggressive, so it was just a case of going into surgery.

“I think some men who have symptoms ignore them. They need to talk about it.

“What has happened to me shows you can come through it.”

 Screening for breast cancer is routine, but tests for prostate cancer are more haphazard, with accurate tools only just beginning to emerge.

The breast screening programme in the UK, which offered mammograms to all women aged 50-70, is credited with saving 1400 lives by flagging the cancer before it spreads.

But there is no national prostate screening programme in the UK as for years the tests have been too inaccurate.

Doctors struggle to distinguish between aggressive and less serious tumours, making it hard to decide on treatment.

Men older than 50 are eligible for a “PSA” blood test which gives doctors a rough idea of whether a patient is at risk. But it is unreliable.

Patients who get a positive result are usually given a biopsy which is also not fool proof.

A major trial last year showed MRI scans were more accurate than biopsies, but only half of hospitals have the right equipment.

The NHS is beginning to use MRI scanners, but this is not yet routine, and still relies on patients having a PSA test or symptoms first.

A team at UCL is embarking on a trial of MRI without PSA or symptoms, but the research is at an early stage and it will be several years until results are produced.

The lack of an accurate test means many men undergo treatment they do not need. 

Daily Mail