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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Prostate Cancer: Starting at the Very Beginning


Yesterday I sat down with a new patient, Sam, a charming man who, unfortunately, was just found to have a prostate nodule and a PSA of 50. When I asked Sam why he had not visited a doctor for over 10 years or undergone any PSA testing, he responded, “I have always enjoyed perfect health. Why see a doctor?” Sounds sort of like a stupid response, but judging by his healthy appearance, (looking more like a 70 year old than an 80 year old), one would have to say that until now his policy has been pretty successful.

However, if Sam was going to participate intelligently in further discussions about the selection of optimal treatment, his prostate cancer knowledge would need a major upgrade. Since my instruction had to begin at a very elementary level, I thought I would use this blog to share the main themes of our almost two-hour meeting together.  Focusing on the basic first steps seems an appropriate theme for this, my first blog of the New Year.

Not All Cancers Are the Same
Many patients introduced into the cancer world fail to understand that lung cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer and prostate cancer are each a distinct illness, each with more differences than similarities. These different cancers are as different as kidney stone disease is different from pneumonia. Therefore, preconceived notions coming from personal experiences with one type of cancer occurring in family members or friends are frequently misleading.

Prostate Cancers are a Mixed Bag
It’s fairly easy to see why dissimilar cancer types, such as bladder cancer and skin cancer for example, behave differently; it may be harder to understand that prostate cancer itself comes in many different and distinct subtypes. Part of this varied behavior can be explained by the disease stage: No one is surprised by the fact that cancer diagnosed at an early stage has a different outlook compared to cancer diagnosed after it has metastasized.

However, beyond the issue of variable stage, when comparing two different prostate cancers of exactly the same stage, what we call “prostate cancer” can be extremely variable. Consider the following: In 2014, 70,000 men were diagnosed with a type of prostate cancer considered to be so harmless that experts universally agree it is best managed with active surveillance only. However, at the other extreme, also in 2014, a very different type of prostate cancer led directly to 28,000 deaths.

Prostate Cancer in the Bone is Not Bone Cancer
A common misconception that needs to be rectified is that cancer that originates in the bone, i.e bone cancer, is a totally different entity than prostate cancer that has spread to the bone. Primary bone cancer grows quickly, often spreads to the lungs and does not respond to hormones. Prostate cancer that spreads to the bone tends to grow much more slowly, only rarely spreads to the lung and usually regresses radically with hormone therapy. Prostate cancer in the bone and primary bone cancer are two separate and distinct illnesses that should not be confused with each other.

Doctors and Patients, the Human Factor
The human factor further complicates the selection of optimal treatment. Doctors who treat prostate cancer come from different schools of thought. Not only are urologists, who are surgeons, trained differently from radiation specialists, the true cancer specialists, the medical oncologists, are practically never involved with early-stage prostate cancer. Differences among patients—age, fitness, prostate size for example—can also radically influence treatment selection.

Sam’s Situation
With a PSA of 50, Sam is going to need a bone scan. He may have already developed metastases. His initial color Doppler ultrasound shows a rather vascular tumor (about an inch and a half long) with some early extra-capsular spread. A targeted biopsy, a single core of the tumor, is scheduled for next week and will let us know the Gleason score.

If the scans turn out to be clear, and if Sam was ten years younger, radiation and hormone therapy would give him the best chance for cure. But in an 80-year-old, the possible side effects that can result are more problematic. Also, we don’t know anything yet about the pace of his disease. Might it be feasible for Sam monitor to the situation for a while? Alternatively, radiation alone or mild hormonal therapy alone (with Casodex) could be considered. Sam and his wife left our meeting with a copy of Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers promising to read it in preparation for our next meeting.

1 comment:

Bruce Dixon said...

That's why it is really important at some point in our lives that we take the initiative to go to free screenings or check in with our family doctors whenever we feel some abnormality in our body to know if this is already cancer or not. And yeah, not all cancers are the same, each type of this disease has a level of difficulty and many patients that undergo holistic treatment to cancer should know this.