Active Surveillance versus the “Gold Standard”
Ten years ago surgery was called the “Gold Standard,” the treatment to which every other kind of treatment should be compared. Now you rarely encounter the Gold Standard argument to bolster surgery as the preferred treatment approach. What scientific studies led to this change in perspective and why has it taken so long for this change to come about?
Finally, a Clear Answer
The final nail in the “Gold Standard” argument occurred in 2012, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Dr. Timothy Wilt comparing the long-term outcome of surgery versus observation.1 Between 1994 and 2002, seven hundred and thirty-one men volunteered to undergo either surgery or observation based on a coin flip.
No Benefit for “Good” Cancer, Modest Benefits for “Bad” CancerThe average age for the whole group of men was 67. The median PSA was 7.8. The study ultimately concluded that here was no difference in prostate cancer mortality with either approach. Mortality was within the expected range of statistical variation (5.8% died in the surgery group and 8.4% died in the observation group). A small survival benefit for surgery was seen in men with a PSA over 10. (Mortality was 12.8% in the observation group and 5.5% in the surgery group.) Dr. Wilt also reported the side effects of surgery.
Even before Dr. Wilt’s report was published, Active Surveillance had been gaining mainstream acceptance in the medical community. Multiple, independently-published studies consistently reach the same conclusion that Active Surveillance is safe. Some of these studies are briefly summarized in the next few paragraphs. The full abstracts are posted on our website at www.keepmyprostate.com.
Do All Men Have Prostate Cancer?One of the most compelling arguments for forgoing radical treatment is based on the fact that prostate cancer is simply too common in the general population to represent an imminent threat to life. Studies of prostate glands removed from men dying of unrelated causes show that by the time they die, most men harbor prostate cancer.1 That prostate cancer is incredibly common in the normal male population is also supported in another report from the New England Journal of Medicine where 4,692 healthy men over age 50 with a normal PSA (average 2.7) volunteered to undergo a simple six-core prostate biopsy. The resulting biopsies showed that one-fourth of the men had cancer.2
Many Studies, Same ConclusionAdditional research has looked into comparing Active Surveillance with surgery. For example, a study from Johns Hopkins reported that life expectancy is only extended an average of 1.8 months by having immediate surgery.3 Another study in the Journal of Urology confirms that the grade of the tumor is an excellent method for determining which type of cancer is safe to monitor because prostate cancer mortality was almost nonexistent in 12,000 men with Gleason score of six or less who were monitored for 12 years after surgery.4
Additional studies reporting the long-term outcome of Active Surveillance have been published: In a ten-year study of 1,000 men undergoing observation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, not a single man has died of prostate cancer or developed metastases.5 In another study of 450 men undergoing observation in Toronto that included some men with grade 7 disease, five out of 450 men died of prostate cancer.6
The Dark Side of TreatmentThe idea of living with cancer may not seem at all attractive, but once the side effects of surgery are factored in, Active Surveillance starts to look really good. Unfortunately, the side effects of radical treatments like surgery are universally underemphasized by doctors and patients alike. Doctors downplay the effects of surgery because their years of working in the field accustom them to impotence and incontinence in their patients. The patients who have had treatment and are lucky enough to have had a good outcome, sing the praises of treatment because they took a radical step to remove their cancer and were fortunate to avoid bad consequences. The patients with bad outcomes are frequently too embarrassed to talk about their diapers and sexual incapacity. They minimize the bad effects of the treatment and emphasize their gratefulness about “having been saved from cancer.”
The fact is that surgery and radiation cause permanent side effects with astounding frequency. In a study of 475 men, four years after having surgery or radiation, less than 20% of men described their sexual function as returning to normal.7 In another study of 785 men, three years after surgery or seed implantation, less than 20% of men who had surgery and less than 50% of the men who had seeds described their sexual function as returning to normal.8 Unfortunately, to many people, all these statistics are an abstraction. Nevertheless, the tragedy of unnecessarily destroying even one man’s sexual identity cannot be calculated.
At First, New Thinking Always Seems RadicalLet me close with an acknowledgement that Active Surveillance involves a totally new way of thinking. The very first conference to review the science of Active Surveillance was convened in San Francisco in 2007. At that time two hundred prostate cancer experts laid down the basic guidelines for Active Surveillance. Doctors around the world are still being introduced to the idea of Active Surveillance. Believe it or not, some doctors have not even heard about it. Inevitably, it takes time for people to change. Even so, that’s no reason for you to be trapped by outdated thinking.