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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Un-Cancer


It’s easier to teach a proper golf swing to a true beginner than to someone who has previously developed bad habits that are now ingrained.  The young mind of a child learns a new language much more easily than the cluttered mind of the adult.  Good first impressions are valued so highly because we all know how hard it is to undo a bad first impression.  The biggest challenge of educating people about prostate cancer is overcoming their preconceived notions—what they already think they know about cancer.

What is prostate cancer?  Many say it’s harmless, that “you die with it, not from it.”  But how does that jibe with 28,000 deaths annually?  One reasonable conclusion is that prostate cancer occurs and acts in a variety of different ways. The Prostate Cancer Research Institute ( recommends dividing prostate cancer up into five categories or Shades of Blue. This is helpful both for understanding the varieties of prostate cancer and for guiding the choice of treatment.

However, even though there are many forms of prostate cancer, this fact fails to convey how differently prostate cancer as a whole acts, compared to other cancers.  Why is it so important to understand this difference?  First of all, surgery—which is everyone’s first thought when they hear the word “cancer”—can have dire consequences.  For example, surgery almost always causes partial or complete impotence. Second, new research published by Dr. Timothy Wilt in the July issue of this year’s New England Journal of Medicine, shows that forgoing immediate treatment and embarking on a program of close monitoring known as “active surveillance,” has exactly the same survival rate as immediate surgery.  Bottom line: For far too many men, immediate treatment for prostate cancer is not only damaging, it is often unnecessary.

Forgoing treatment with something called cancer is certainly counterintuitive.  In order to support the case for monitoring, let’s compare the statistics for prostate cancer with those of colon cancer.

Prostate Cancer: 
The “Un-Cancer”
Colon Cancer:
A “Typical” Cancer
Deaths Annually
1 : 1
New Cases Diagnosed
3.5 : 1
Mortality Rate
4.2 : 1
Average Survival if Relapse Occurs
13 Years
13 Months
12 : 1

As the table shows, men diagnosed with colon cancer are not only three and a half times more likely to die from the disease, they die twelve times more quickly.  Unfortunately, almost all cancers—lung, pancreas, stomach, gallbladder, kidney, brain, bone, etcetera—approximate the behavior of colon cancer rather than prostate cancer.

The fact remains that it is logical for the general population to be terrified by the very idea of cancer.  When you consider all the different types combined, cancer is the second most common cause of death, just below heart disease. The risk of death from most cancers is high and if a cure is not obtained, death follows all too quickly. The unfortunate men who die from prostate cancer make the “news,” even though it may not be generally understood that it took 13 years for those men to succumb. However, the fact remains that there are 2.8 million prostate cancer survivors presently living in the U.S. That should be news too.

Ninety-one and a half percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer will have a normal life expectancy, and will die of natural causes. The eight and a half percent who die from prostate cancer will live an average of 13 years, with this number expected to increase dramatically over the next ten years, thanks to continuing improvements in medical technology.  Treatment can definitely improve survival in selected cases.  However, it would seem that only men in the high-grade category are likely to benefit consistently.

The encouraging facts about prostate cancer outlined in this blog have been compiled to help men realize that survival rates with prostate cancer are extremely favorable compared to other types of cancer.  Now that studies show that survival with active surveillance matches that of immediate surgery, a great many men should take heart, and resist all efforts to rush into a treatment with such uncertain rewards but such predictable and devastating side effects. 


Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. Thank you.
An 'AS' prostate cancer survivor.

Anonymous said...

I have read in the NYT that the man who set up the Gleason Score did not want the score of "3" to be called cancer, but atypical cells. Would you comment on this please.