The study compared data from 1,754 men who were diagnosed with prostate cancer and compared them with about the same number of men who do not have prostate cancer. The researchers interviewed both groups of men in-person and asked them questions about a variety of things including whether or not they were circumcised, the age at which they were circumcised, and the age at which they first engaged in "sexual intercourse" (the paper doesn't say whether they specified penile-vaginal intercourse, but they do report that about 2.5% of the total sample had male sexual partners).
They found that men who were circumcised before they first had sexual intercourse were 15 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer than uncircumcised men.
They note that this is only an observation. There is no way of knowing what role, if any, being circumcised had in this 15% difference. Still, they went looking for this based on the theory that infections, including sexually transmitted infections, increase the risk of getting prostate cancer and the theory that being circumcised reduces one's risk of getting a sexually transmitted infections. If these theories are all correct, then they propose it follows that circumcision would offer protection against prostate cancer.
It's a lot of theories to string together, and as the authors make clear this is just the beginning. Many questions remain. Aside from whether or not it's possible to isolate a factor like circumcision from all other factors in order to say that it confers this or that benefit in disease prevention, I'm curious about how to square this research with the findings that adult male circumcision is protective against HIV. That research remains controversial, and other studies have produced other findings, but it's interesting to think about how we talk and think about circumcision when we are mostly talking about treatment of brown people in Africa as opposed to how we think about it when we are talking about white people in North America.
It's not that there aren't plenty of African American men with prostate cancer. Actually they have the highest rates of prostate cancer. But they are also more than twice as likely than their white counterparts to die from prostate cancer, a health disparity which speaks to just who prevention and treatment in North America is geared to (here's a hint: it's the people who can pay for it).
All of this leaves me only more confused about what to think of circumcision as a health intervention and about how exactly to help parents who are trying to make decisions about circumcision based on the available evidence.
Read More: MSNBC.com: Circumcision Tied to Lower Prostate Cancer Risk
Wright, J.L., Lin, D.W. & Stanford, J.L. "Circumcision and the Risk of Prostate Cancer" Cancer. Published online March 12, 2012.
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