Skip To Content

    Ben Stiller Reveals He Was Diagnosed With Prostate Cancer

    The actor says he was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer years ago and has since had surgery to treat it.

    On Tuesday, Ben Stiller spoke publicly for the first time about being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014.

    Rob Kim / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    The actor went public with it on Howard Stern Tuesday morning, and published a personal essay about it on Medium.

    Stiller was joined on the show by his surgeon, who discussed the controversial screening method which led to Stiller's diagnosis.

    Quick refresher: The prostate is a walnut-sized gland located under the bladder that helps produce semen.

    Kocakayaali / Getty Images

    The gland's function is to produce seminal fluid, which helps nourish and transport sperm as it leaves the body through ejaculation. It tends to cause more issues (especially with urination), as men age, and it's checked during a routine digital rectal exam, where a finger or instrument is inserted in the anus to feel for abnormalities.

    Prostate cancer is common — about 1 in 6 men will get it, according to the American Cancer Society.

    Stiller, now 50, was diagnosed in July 2014 at age 48, two years after a blood test showed elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA).

    Stiller wrote that when he was 46, his doctor gave him a "baseline PSA test," which is sometimes given to average or low-risk individuals.

    The PSA test measures levels of prostate-specific antigen; anything over level 4 is suspicious, Dr. Robert Segal, medical testing expert and co-founder of LabFinder.com, told BuzzFeed Health. It's a screening tool to determine prostate cancer risk, not detect the cancer itself. After an abnormal PSA test, you'd usually go to a urologist, said Segal, who follows up with a rectal exam and MRI before they decide if you need a biopsy.

    "It's sensitive but not specific, meaning it detects a high PSA but we don't know if that's from a fatal cancer, a low-grade cancer, or even just a benign inflammation or infection in the prostate," Dr. Harry Fisch, clinical professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told BuzzFeed Health.

    "The PSA test saved my life," Stiller wrote.

    Michael Reaves / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    After that initial test showing a high PSA, Stiller said his doctors monitored his PSA levels for two years until they eventually did an MRI and biopsy to screen for cancer.

    The biopsy came back positive, Stiller wrote, showing he had “mid-range aggressive cancer." Doctors recommended surgery to remove the tumor, and Stiller said he got the phone call that he was cancer-free in September 2014.

    But the PSA test remains controversial because there are conflicting guidelines about who should get screened and whether it's even necessary at all.

    Jovanmandic / Getty Images / Via thinkstockphotos.com

    "When you have three major agencies with different recommendations then there really is no recommendation, it's more or less a big debate on medical costs, risks, and screening benefits," said Segal. Here are the guidelines today:

    * The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends against PSA screening for prostate cancer because false-positive results can be common and harmful.

    * The American Urologic Association recommends that men between 55-69 talk to their doctor about the PSA screening.

    * The American Cancer Society recommends yearly PSA screenings starting at age 50, or starting at age 40 or 45 for high-risk individuals.

    Which one of these guidelines is best? That's completely up to the doctor. Stiller's doctor decided to go against all of them.

    "The guidelines don't replace a physician's judgement, and it's up to the them to work with their patient and figure out if a PSA test is the right call," Dr. Darius Paduch, urologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told BuzzFeed Health. The guidelines are also based on research up to 10 or 15 years old, he said, so they tend to actually be quite outdated and don't include the new screening technology.

    "If my doctor had followed the guidelines, I would have never gotten tested at all, and not have known I had cancer until it was way too late to treat successfully," Stiller wrote.

    Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    Stiller, pictured here with his wife and daughter, was 46 years old and he had no family history, no demographic risk factors, and no prostate cancer symptoms. According to guidelines, he should have never gotten a PSA test.

    "Stiller should be applauded for talking about this because it's men like him who get aggressive prostate cancer in their 40s who die from it, not the guys over 75," said Paduch.

    However, many believe that the screening can lead to more anxiety and harm.

    The risks and benefits of PSA screening have caused much debate in the medical world. Many researchers believe that the chance of a cancer misdiagnosis from a PSA screening and the cost of an unnecessary MRI and biopsy is enough reason to not use the test at all.

    The history of prostate cancer screening is another issue, says Paduch, because prostate biopsies used to be over-performed in the mid 1900s, leaving many men who never even had cancer disfigured for life. However, the experts are quick to point out that a high PSA does not automatically lead to a biopsy, and that's up to the doctor's judgement.

    The test itself is quick, simple, and low-cost.

    Other doctors, such as Segal, argue that the PSA is always beneficial because because most prostate cancer cases are asymptomatic, so early detection key. "The PSA screening helps patients be more informed about their risks and helps doctors make better clinical decisions," said Segal. Scientists are trying to develop other simple tests, said Fisch, which they can use in addition to the PSA to get more accurate and specific results.

    The simple blood test is usually covered by insurance and relatively low cost (under $60) out of pocket. You can find a lab here that does PSA testing and sends digital results, so you'll avoid a long and hectic doctor's appointment.

    The experts agree that Stiller's story is an example of why men should be more informed about prostate health.

    Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    "Most of the time, the prostate is absolutely fine, so men shouldn’t be afraid of having an exam or quick blood test because it can save lives," said Paduch.

    So men — don't forget to talk to your doctor about prostate cancer and PSA tests! If you're confused or worried about any of this, talking to your doctor can help you understand your risk and when you should get screened. Prostate issues are not the easiest thing to talk about, but your doctor is ready to listen and give you more information.

    We're glad you're okay, Ben!

    Brian Ach / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

    CORRECTION

    Prostate biopsies used to be over-performed in the mid 1900s, leaving many men who never even had cancer disfigured for life. A previous version of this article misstated that biopsies were over-performed in the mid 19th century.

    Want to be the first to see product recommendations, style hacks, and beauty trends? Sign up for our As/Is newsletter!

    Newsletter signup form