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As all of us septuagenarians (and probably octogenarians) know, and as Gilda Radner entitled her book, “It’s always something.” In it, she goes on to say, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
For most prostate cancer patients, the challenges presented by that diagnosis occur at a time of life when one is forced to admit that the sprained ankle doesn’t heal as fast, gray hairs are appearing, and/or your hairline is receding (or the bald patch growing), and there may indeed be as much life stretching out behind you in the rear view mirror as lies ahead. While one can choose to fight the cancer with every possible modern intervention, it is also true that there will be other challenges awaiting just around the corner, and it is impossible to handicap the inevitable threats to your health, of which prostate cancer is but one.
Recognizing this, and realizing that we spent two decades over-treating many patients, gave rise to the current option of “active surveillance” for men with low grade disease (Gleason 3+3, some 3+4). One of the most mature studies of this approach was published in the NEJM just last month. Peter Albertson, writing in F1000, nicely summarized the key findings from the article:
“First, the most powerful predictor of long-term outcome remains the Gleason score. Following surgery, men with Gleason 4+3 disease have an almost six times greater risk of dying from prostate cancer and men with Gleason 8 or 9 disease have an almost eleven times risk of dying from prostate cancer compared with men with lower grade Gleason 3+3 or 3+4 disease. Second, radical prostatectomy can provide improved outcomes, lowering the absolute risk of dying from prostate cancer by 11.7% and extending life by almost 3 years. Third, younger men less than 65 years of age at diagnosis are much more likely to benefit from surgery when compared to older men. Fourth, men with low grade cancer (Gleason 3+3 or 3+4) appear to have comparable outcomes and rarely died following surgery. The article was silent concerning the relative clinical outcomes of surgery and watchful waiting in this group of men. An important caveat to remember is that most men participating in this trial were diagnosed based upon clinical findings, not from testing for prostate-specific antigen. As suggested by data from the PROTECT trial, screen detected prostate cancer appears to introduce a lead time that could be as great as 10 years. This confounds estimates of the efficacy of surgical treatment especially among older men.”
I just submitted my own take on the active surveillance vs prostatectomy trial as follows:
“There is little to add to Dr. Albertsen’s excellent review although there are a few issues I would add as important perspectives in these kinds of long term followups. First, as a disease of aging, prostate cancer has many competitors in terms of cause of death. 261/347 (71.9%) men in the radical prostatectomy group and 292/348 (83.8%) men in the watchful waiting group have died from any cause. Of the 261 men in the prostatectomy group, 71(27.2%) died from prostate cancer while in the watchful waiting group, there were 110 deaths from prostate cancer (37.7%). From this perspective, prostate cancer is important, but far from the “most” important cause of death with ~2/3 of men dying from other causes regardless of what we do. Second, one needs to consider the quality of life (QOL), and this paper clearly indicates that many men develop metastases, requiring ADT with its side effects and this is reduced by prostatectomy, while the side effects of prostatectomy itself also take a very high toll on sexual function and a lesser, but significant risk of incontinence. If our goal is to “first do no harm”, the challenges of caring for men as they age remain with us, even as our technology for discovering earlier disease (in prostate cancer) and treating late disease (from any cause) advances.”
But there is something we can do to combat both prostate cancer and aging! Vigorous exercise. In a study performed at two hospitals in Canada and the UK, total and vigorous physical activity resulted in fewer men having worsening prostate cancer while on active surveillance. Further, retrospective studies demonstrate similar advantages even for men with metastatic disease. And if you don’t have prostate cancer, feel free to look at the 100’s of articles showing improved quality and length of life you can achieve with exercise (compared to minimal/no benefit from supplements). I’m also a fan of Fred Bartlit’s book, “Choosing the Strong Path” and his crusade to age gracefully by pumping iron. So the message is clear, even though “it’s always something” as we age or fight our cancers, we have it in our power to do something. Enjoy your time on the treadmill folks!!