The co-authors of Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers, blog alternate posts weekly. We invite you to post your comments.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The TEAL Shade of Blue


People assume that the differences in the way prostate cancer behaves—one man develops symptoms and another doesn’t—is because they are seeing different stages of the same illness.  What’s overlooked, often with disastrous consequences, is that these differences are also due to the fact that distinct varieties of prostate cancer exist.

Receiving optimal therapy depends on matching an appropriate treatment with both the correct stage and the correct type of prostate cancer.  Since blue is the color for prostate cancer, as pink is the color for breast cancer, the PCRI has subdivided prostate cancer into five major Shades of Blue. These shades incorporate both the stage and the type of disease. The five shades are SKY, TEAL, AZURE, INDIGO and ROYAL.

The first three shades, SKY, TEAL and AZURE, represent men who have had no previous surgery or radiation. TEAL is what medical professionals call “Intermediate-Risk.” Men in the TEAL shade have identical characteristics to SKY—PSA under 10, Gleason under 7 and a small nodule (or no nodule) on digital rectal examination. However, in addition, men in TEAL have one of the following: PSA between 10 and 20, or, Gleason of 7, or digital rectal exam with a “biggish” nodule confined to one side of the gland.

Since men in TEAL have a small but real chance of cancer spread, staging scans of the bone and body are needed.  In addition, a multiparametric MRI or a Color Doppler Ultrasound should be done to check for spread around the gland just outside the capsule. If extra-capsular disease is seen, the shade changes from TEAL to AZURE.

Treatment for TEAL
The list of treatment options for TEAL is long.  While occasionally men are candidates for active surveillance— particularly those who are older—one of the following treatments is usually administered: Robotic surgery, open surgery, intensity modulated radiation, temporary high-dose seed radiation, permanent seed radiation, a combination of seed radiation and IMRT, proton therapy, Cyberknife, focal therapy or testosterone inactivating pharmaceuticals (TIP).  Sometimes a short course of TIP is combined with radiation.

Focal therapy “focuses” treatment on the cancer itself rather than the whole gland.  Typical tools used for focal therapy are cryotherapy, HIFU or laser. In general, skillfully administered focal therapy is thought to be associated with a lower risk for side effects and only slightly higher risk of future cancer relapse. However, focal therapy is very new and there are relatively few studies accurately describing long-term results.

Another option is to use TIP. TIP causes the cancer to shrivel up.  Typically TIP is continued for six to twelve months after which men are placed on active surveillance.

One general principle is that treatment success depends just as much on the skill of the administering doctor as it does on the type of treatment selected.

The second general principle is that cure rates with most of the different treatments are so close that for comparison purposes, they should be considered identical. Of course, the truth of this principle is predicated on the assumption that all treatments are administered by equally skilled experts.

Side Effects of Treatment
The prostate gland is so close to other critical organs it becomes very difficult to target the gland without damaging surrounding structures. The most common side effects, therefore, are persistent difficulties with sexual, urinary or rectal function.  For example, after radiation in an average 65-year-old, about 75% of men will recover back to their normal pretreatment level of urinary function. About 50% will recover back to their normal pretreatment level of sexual function. After surgery, about 50% of men have urinary function that is restored but only 20% describe their sexual function as recovering back to baseline.

Predictions about the incidence of side effects after focal treatment are less than certain because this technology is so new. Overall, assuming that the treating physicians are skillful, one would expect somewhat better potency rates and somewhat lower cure rates compared to standard surgery or radiation.

Comparing TIP with others options is even more difficult.  Cure rates are certainly much lower. However, the good news is that permanent side effects are rare.  The three most troublesome side effects during therapy are low libido, weight gain and fatigue. Weight gain and fatigue are partially counteracted with diligent diet and exercise. Low libido only resolves after TIP is stopped. Other common side effects such as hot flashes, calcium loss from the bones, mood swings, breast growth and erectile dysfunction can be prevented with medication.

Final Thoughts
Men in the TEAL Shade of Blue, compared to men in the other shades, face the biggest challenge—making a therapeutic choice.  First, there are so many options. Second, none of the options are attractive.  The “best” choice is only relatively better than the others; it’s never something you want to do. Making the best choice for yourself requires good comparison shopping skills, and that requires extensive homework. There are no shortcuts. Third, the biggest differences between the options are not related to the cure rates, it’s the concern about permanent side effects that needs the most attention.

Therefore, my recommendation for selecting treatment is to create a list of all the reasonable choices and study them closely, especially in term of the potential long-term side effects.  The “worst” choices should be eliminated one by one. The last option left on the list will probably be the best treatment for you. 

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