In coming months, Australian men of a certain age will be encouraged to ask a doctor about whether they should be tested for prostate cancer. Here are a few reasons why they might like to think twice beforehand.

The radio and television community service announcements, titled “Make a Date Mate” and starring actor Michael Caton, are the creation of a Sydney GP (and All-Saints actor), Dr Jeremy Cumpston.

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But a general viewer may not realise that this Sydney-based company, has launched an “international marketing campaign” for a prostate cancer test in development.

A general viewer (of either the commercial or the news stories it has generated — for example) also may not realise that the overall thrust of the advertisement is out-of-step with the weight of medical and scientific opinion about prostate cancer screening.

As the Cancer Council Australia noted after the campaign’s launch yesterday: “It remains the case that no major government or public health organisation in the world support or promote systematic prostate cancer screening.”

Not that this is any deterrent for Dr Cumpston, who during a long conversation with Crikey clearly revealed his disdain for those he calls “number crunchers” — the public health and cancer experts who argue there is insufficient evidence to prove that the benefits of prostate cancer screening outweigh harms. Many are awaiting the results of two large overseas trials, due next year.

Dr Cumptson is emphatically a true believer, however, and perhaps this is at least partly a reflection of his own family history — both his father and grandfather had prostate cancer, and he is worried about getting it too. The passion and anger with which he speaks are reminiscent of Wayne Swan’s vitriolic attack some years ago on experts who questioned the screening push.

The advertisement is being promoted under the auspices of the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, which today joins the Crikey Register of influence because of its close connections with industry. The Foundation’s website lists among its many corporate sponsors several companies with a direct interest in promoting the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer and related problems.

One of these sponsors, Astra Zeneca, has funded a new DVD produced and sold by the PCFA that features Roger Climpson and GP Dr Con Poulos, that aims “to improve understanding and awareness of prostate cancer in the community”.

Other sponsors include:

  • Abbott (whose website recommends prostate cancer screening);
  • American Medical Systems which, amongst other things, sells products for two of the most common side effects of prostate surgery, incontinence and impotence;
  • Eli Lilly which is also distributing an educational DVD to GPs produced by Dr Cumpston
  • Sanofi Aventis.

A leading public health authority on cancer, the University of Sydney’s Professor Bruce Armstrong, has expressed alarm about the Foundation’s ties to industry and urged the public to be wary.

“I feel sad and disappointed that an organisation which, to all intents and purposes, is established to do good allows itself to be compromised in this way,” he told Crikey.

Melbourne oncologist, Dr Ian Haines, raised similar concerns and urged the public to be wary generally of advice coming from patient groups taking industry funding.

“Many of these groups seem to get taken over by vested interests and appear to become a marketing arm of the device or pharmaceutical company,” he said.

“We’re all influenced by who’s funding us so I would urge affected individuals to be very cautious about taking advice from those groups.”

The Foundation’s CEO, Andrew Giles, dismisses such concerns, however, saying pharmaceutical industry funding accounts for less than five per cent of his budget.

“I don’t think they’re giving us anywhere enough money to taint what we’re doing,” he says.

“I think they have a moral obligation to give back some money. Other cancer organisations say they will not take any pharmaceutical money. I run a very poor organisation so we take what we can get.”

For my money, I would advise sending the Caton advertisement “straight to the pool room” (in the vein of Caton’s film The Castle).

For those wanting useful information to guide decisions about prostate cancer screening, check out some of the decision aids listed by the Ottawa Health Research Institute.

Declaration: Melissa Sweet is co-author of a new book which highlights the potential downsides of prostate cancer screening, Ten Questions You Must Ask Your Doctor (Allen & Unwin).

Who else has joined the Crikey Register of Influence? See the latest updates here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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