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One of the most frustrating and frightening things that can happen to a prostate cancer patient is for there to be a recurrence of the PSA after he thought he had been cured by surgery, radiation therapy, or both. This is entirely understandable. It is no picnic to go through those treatments in the first place, and when the PSA is clearly going up, it can only mean (with very rare exception) that there are still cancer cells lurking somewhere in the body. The rate of the PSA rise can predict how long it will be until something shows up on a scan, and on average, this is about EIGHT years. The median time to death from prostate cancer after a PSA recurrence is 16 years.
For >95% of patients there is something that CAN be done to stem the rise in PSA. That is to go on hormonal therapy (androgen deprivation, ADT) which will drop the PSA, often all the way to undetectable levels, in over 95% of patients. Voila! Both patient and physician feel much better emotionally. But for the patient, there is a significant price to pay. Namely the hot flashes, loss of energy, weight gain, bone calcium loss, lack of libido and further decrease in sexual function to name a few. The question is whether this is “worth it”.
A study to be presented in the next few weeks at ASCO’s annual meeting, suggests it won’t make much difference if you start ADT early versus waiting until metastases, or perhaps even symptoms occur. Utilizing the CaPSURE database, the investigators evaluated over 2000 men who had PSA relapse. The estimated 5 year overall survival (87% vs 85%) and 10 year overall survival (72% vs 72%) were the same regardless of whether the men received immediate or delayed ADT. The same was true for death from prostate cancer…no significant difference. There are of course other considerations that may come into play like treating those patients who have highly aggressive disease earlier because one knows that there will be metastases within a year, or the patient simply can’t live with himself knowing his PSA is going up.
In my experience, it is the exceptional patient who is willing to go play golf or travel or enjoy his grandchildren and forgo PSA testing on a regular basis. I have trouble even convincing my patients to extend their PSA testing to 6 months from 3 months. The question is, does it make any sense to watch this “number”, any more than it would to have cardiac catheterization every 3 months to follow the slow but inexorable accumulation of calcium in your coronary artery? Or what about the 0.01 mm increase in your abdominal aortic aneurysm? Or the accumulation of two more tangles in the Alzheimer plaque in your brain. Just because we CAN measure PSA so easily certainly doesn’t mean we SHOULD, and I have seen far too many men let this number ruin their otherwise healthy lives.