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Circumcision Cuts Prostate Cancer Risk

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Slide of invasive prostate adenocarcinoma, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/NIH

Circumcision might reduce a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer by 15 percent, according to new research published online March 12 in Cancer.

Of 1,754 men surveyed who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, fewer—percentage-wise—had been circumcised than the 1,645 men who did not have prostate cancer. Men with more aggressive forms of prostate cancer were even more likely to be uncircumcised. Most men were 55 or older; to be protective against cancer risk, they had to have been circumcised before they first had sex.

The timing is important, the researchers suggest, because sexually transmitted infections might play a key role in making later cancer development more likely. Previous research showed that men who had any sexually transmitted infection were at a higher risk for prostate cancer.

Male circumcision has already been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection as well as other sexually transmitted diseases. But the new correlation does not suggest that prostate cancer is necessarily caused directly by a viral infection, in the way penile and anal cancers have been linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted during various sexual activities. (Earlier research has pointed to a retrovirus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, or XMRV, as a possible link for some aggressive cases.) Instead the infection can start a chain reaction that increases the odds of cancer. An underlying infection often leads to chronic inflammation in the body which in turn creates a more welcoming environment for cancer cells.

Circumcision nips this cycle in the bud in several ways. Foreskin is prone to small tears, which can allow viruses and bacteria to enter the body. This tissue also can harbor infectious strains that can get into the body later. Finally, after circumcision, the tissue in the circumcised area becomes tougher and less prone to damage and microscopic hangers-on.

The pattern suggests “a biologically plausible mechanism through which circumcision may decrease the risk of prostate cancer,” Jonathan Wright of the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-author of the study said in a prepared statement. And the new data point to the need for further study. In the meantime, other risks have already been established, such as older age and family history. All these factors can help a doctor and patient best decide about screening via PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood tests, a step the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last year recommended against as standard procedure for healthy men.

Read more about prostate cancer in “The Great Prostate Debate” from the February 2012 issue of Scientific American.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. cureinsearchofdisease 3:17 am 03/12/2012

    Dear Ms. Harm,

    why does your sensationalized header read: “Circumcision Cuts Prostate Cancer Risk” but then you go on to say: “Circumcision *might* reduce a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer”?

    “It never ceases to amaze me how much money and time is spent by “researchers” hell-bent on proving that a normal human body part is the biggest threat known to mankind.” -Kira Dawn

    “Circumcision has always been toted as the cure for the disease of the day. However, every one of these “benefits” has since either been disproven, or shown to be so small, that it is really not a benefit at all. This is why circumcision is commonly referred to as “the cure in search of a disease”. -activist

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  2. 2. cureinsearchofdisease 3:47 am 03/12/2012

    The American Cancer Society’s position regarding early detection is “Research has not yet proven that the potential benefits of testing outweigh the harms of testing and treatment. The American Cancer Society believes that men should not be tested without learning about what we know and don’t know about the risks and possible benefits of testing and treatment. The only test that can fully confirm the diagnosis of prostate cancer is a biopsy, the removal of small pieces of the prostate for microscopic examination. However, prior to a biopsy, less invasive testing can be conducted.

    So early detection of prostate cancer (biopsy) is discouraged (because it is too INVASIVE) but early, surgical removal, of a significant portion of a man’s penis, without his direct consent, is encouraged and NOT considered invasive?!?

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  3. 3. Jerzy New 5:54 am 03/12/2012


    SciAm is trawling the bottom scum to generate popularity. Some practices, like mutilation are so barbaric that they should remain off limit.

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  4. 4. 7:54 am 03/12/2012

    As a graduate of Duke School of Medicine and medical provider at a Harvard Affiliated group in Boston, I am disgusted at the lengths researchers will go to to continue to promote sutting off parts of boys sexual organs. Researchers are kept in business by getting grants and should be forced to dislose this when they list their conflicts of interest. The money being given to groups to promote circumcision and mislead the public is incredible. Greed and ego as well as personal agenda is driving this effort


    Discrimination and human rights are being ignored in this effort. Removing parts of girls sexual organs would likley prevent disease-vulvalr cancers, HPV, and some studies in Africa have shown it to reduce HIV -but we don’t do it because we respect their rights. It would be simple to do in infancy as they do in Indonesia-done by DOCTORS in the hospital.

    The foreskin is a normal and intergral part of mens bodies and has important functions. It is there for a reason. Google foreskin functions and learn. Circumcising babies when they are at their earlies stage of development-imprinting every experience- is bad medicine. NO OTHER COUNTRY INTHE WORLD DOES THIS FOR MEDICAL REASONS and most have better health outcomes. Leave boys bodies alone and teach them how to wear condoms when they are become sexually active.

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  5. 5. GeoPrime 10:06 am 03/12/2012

    Circumcision is a very profitable practice and as a capitalistic society we should embrace it and support the manufacturers of medical devices used in the procedure, the doctors who perform it and everyone else in the value chain. It’s not like the babies who grow up circumcised demand compensation – easy money!

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  6. 6. Jimmmy2 2:14 pm 03/12/2012

    All science is a maybe for the time being. It’s just a part of the scientific method to see results improved and even changed. This reminds me of the fight against cancer danger from fatty foods like apple pie. They are not attacking apple pie. They are trying to help the percentages on a terrible disease.

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  7. 7. 2:55 pm 03/12/2012

    Dumb article.

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  8. 8. nmlevesque 3:54 pm 03/12/2012

    First of all if unless that 15% estimate is a ‘if circumcision rates were 100%’ then I already know it’s bogus. Other estimates that have been peer reviewed place it as much lower with a 100% circumcision rate. Not including that key point when presenting the figure is shameful.
    Secondly, that estimate looks mighty high even if it were 100% compliance rate, at least in comparison to all the other good data we have thus far, so it’s highly suspect.
    Thirdly, adding in statements like ‘circumcision is known to reduce the risk of’, and that already thoroughly debunked bs about increasing infection rates, put this safely in the bed of bad science. At best what we have is a negligible statistical relationship between high circumcision rates and STI transmission, and the relationship doesn’t yield consistent results relative to the rates of circumcision. That basically means we already know the effect is actually lower than the correlative statistic would suggest to an over eager statistician.
    Fourthly, such a negligible statistical relationship doesn’t, I repeat, *does not* mean that it’s ok to violate a child’s right to an intact body. Especially given that it necessarily means a loss of certain functions, a weakening of others, and has the possibility of complications.

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  9. 9. GG 7:26 pm 03/12/2012

    In other news, a study found that wearing burqas dramatically reduced the transmission of the flu virus.

    In yet another groundbreaking study, it was found that cliterectomy decreases sexual pleasure, and this has the positive effect of reducing the transmission of herpes, hepatitis, papilomavirus, and other STDs.

    Hence Sharia law should be practiced for public health reasons.

    Dear SciAm editors, are you THAT retarded? :-( (

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  10. 10. Descarreaux 9:03 pm 03/12/2012

    It is not because you have a PHD that you are smart.

    They never thought that the underlying problem was hygiene!

    Though it would be difficult to have a survey with 1000 men that wash it and another 1000 men that do not wash it.

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  11. 11. ActaNonVerba 2:08 am 03/13/2012

    Why aren’t there studies being done to see if the female equivalent of circumcision (slicing off the clitoral hood) has any health benefits in later life? Let me go ahead and answer that. Because we accept, at face value, that mutilating a female infants genitalia is ethically unacceptable….PERIOD, under any circumstances. Why on earth we can’t (or won’t) accept the EXACT SAME respect for male infants is beyond me. It’s sickening. P.S. Ms. Harmon seems pretty gung-ho about mutilating baby boys based on her headline.

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  12. 12. Hugh77 4:05 am 03/13/2012

    A classic case of data-mining. There was NO significant correlation between being never-circumcised and prostate cancer. So they took the men circumcised after they’d had sex (who were very slightly MORE likely to end up with prostate cancer) and added them to the never-circumcised. Even so, the statistical significance was marginal (95% confidence intervals reaching 1.0).

    If the link is via STDs, you’d think there would be a significant difference in reported STDs between the men with and without prostate cancer, but there isn’t – so the researchers have to resort to asymptomatic and unreported STDs. (And there are plenty of studies showing NO link between circumcision and STDs.)

    Even if the benefit was rock-solid, it amounts to 39 infant circumcisions, with all their risks and harm, wasted for every cancer prevented. But “15% reduction” looks more impressive.

    It is good to see that others too are tired of this steady drizzle of pro-circumcision propaganda. Circumcision is a “cure” in endless and futile search of a disease, an intervention tirelessly seeking an excuse. The real reasons for doing it are not rational.

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  13. 13. Jerzy New 4:27 am 03/13/2012

    I must say low quality of SciAm blogs (except one) succesfully discouraged me from buying the paper version.

    How can I trust things I don’t know, when propaganda, political views and fantasy dominates over facts?

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  14. 14. Religious Freedom For All 11:43 pm 03/13/2012

    Scientific American I grew up with you in the heyday of the American economy. You once had stature. Now you are a competitor to Discover magazine?

    You have been publishing this sort of poorly researched, (and poorly covered by journalists) “pro circumcision” article for the last 3, or 5 years? Are you merely a trumpet for the Circ-happy AMA and CDC? Don’t you have a responsibility to actually do depth reporting? Are you aware that the USA has a majority of circumcised males – and much higher STD and HIV rates than Western Europe? Are you aware that there are serious ethical issues involved in performing sexual reduction surgery on minors, without consent? Are you aware that routine infant circumcision is unique to Israel and the USA? Are you aware that it is a roughly $1 billion dollar industry in the USA? Are you aware that no organization recommends routine infant circumcision? The benefits are AWAYS “potential” – but the risks are REAL, -including some 250-300 deaths in the USA each year? Do you know that 80% of men have foreskin throughout their lives and they and their partners have much better sex lives and few troubles with their foreskin?

    You are not fooling anyone with this shoddy reporting. of the 13 comments so far, only 1 is someone in the “intactivist” movement, – to my knowledge. The rest are folks who can see the TITLE doesn’t match the story. They are pointing out that you are doing us a all disservice by this biased and inaccurate “reporting”.

    Maybe it is time let my subscription to the hard copy of Scientific American lapse -at the end of the year. You have some time to work on this. Start with Tara Parker Pope at the New York Times. Continue with Doctors Opposing Circumcision. Interview Marilyn Fayre Milos and Kathreen O’Hara. Do some real work on the subject. Get used to the idea that the AMA has been telling us fairy tales on the subject for 150 years.

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  15. 15. JamesDavis 2:22 pm 03/14/2012

    “”, do you think that Katherine Harmon believes anything you just said? She seems really gun ho to get people in America to continue dicing and slicing on little baby boys. I bet she is just as gun ho on abortion if she knew the baby was a little boy; why about circumcising the little boy while he is still in the womb? If Circumcising may prevent prostrate cancer in little boys, then shouldn’t circumcising little girls prevent ovarian cancer? For every little boy you circumcise, you should also circumcise a little girl; after all, don’t they want to be treated as an equal?

    SciAm is becoming the most laughed at rag on the web with these half-assed articles and know nothing reporters who refuse to research what they are writing about. SciAm needs to make a turn around and get rid of these worthless reporters and hire better editors and give people better written and better researched articles.

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  16. 16. Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. 7:49 pm 03/14/2012

    Here is a partial list of conditions, behaviors, and diseases physicians have claimed circumcision will prevent or cure: asthma, bladder inflammation, blindness, cancer of the cervix, cancer of the penis, cancer of the prostate, clubfoot, clumsiness, compulsion to rape, constant crying, convulsions, criminal behavior, deafness, diabetes, diarrhea, divorce, dumbness, epilepsy, excessive saliva, frequent urination, gangrene, gonorrhea, hernia, herpes, hiv/aids, hives, homosexuality, idiocy, impotence, indigestion, irritability, marital unhappiness, masturbation, mental disease, nervousness, nightmares, nose picking, oversensitive penis, paralysis, passion, promiscuity, restlessness, urine retention, sexual appetite, spinal curvature, swollen feet, syphilis, tuberculosis, urinary tract infections, and wet dreams.

    Are these all honest mistakes, or the biggest medical fraud in history perpetrated by circumcised men with a compulsion to have done to others what was done to them?

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  17. 17. HubertB 9:03 am 03/15/2012

    Almost all men in Muslim lands are circumcised. There are numerous prostitutes in North Africa. Still, we read about the extremely high HIV rates in Sub-Sahara Africa where most males are not circumcised.
    Only an idiot will believe a kid, with raging hormones, will always use a condom. If one time without the condom can get a girl pregnant, it is possible that one time without the condom can transfer HIV. “I forgot,” doesn’t uncatch a disease.
    If circumcision can have so many possible benefits, and those great apes known as humans no longer need the foreskin to protect their penis from thorns as they walk necked through the jungle, why not circumcise them?

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  18. 18. blackbird79 10:41 pm 03/16/2012

    Has the University of Washington team piped in on John Bobbitt’s future prospects yet, Ms. Harmon?

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