Making sense of all the big prostate cancer headlines of the last few weeks

It’s been a big couple weeks of headlines in the news for prostate cancer.

Let me help you make sense of it all.

I’m a prostate cancer survivor and cancer biologist.

Prostate cancer is almost an inevitable fate for men in America and for many around the world, but a significant fraction of the cancers are not life threatening. Others, such as the one I had surgery for 2 1/2 years ago (read my cancer “coming out” post here), are to the contrary very serious.

How good are we at telling the difference? What’s the best way to detect the cancers that are dangerous? How can we best help men with prostate cancer? What about those men whose cancer has recurred?

There are a lot of questions and it can be confusing. What’s the scoop on the latest headlines?

First there was the bombshell that the federal task force recommended that all PSA testing be stopped. They claimed that PSA testing did more harm than good. Most rational people who are well-educated about prostate cancer that I have talked to in the biomedical community think the task force made a huge mistake. As I put it, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is not time to abandon PSA testing, but rather a prime opportunity to refine it and adopt a more logical system of testing. Bottom line, I think men should still get tested but under the new guidelines I proposed. At risk men such as those with a first degree relative who has had prostate cancer (e.g. my two brothers), especially at a young age, should get tested.

Second, we heard promising news that J&J’s drug Zytiga (Abiraterone) worked so well in a trial that the trial was stopped so all men could receive the treatment. Very encouraging news. Zytiga works by inhibiting production of testosterone. It is intended to be used for so called hormone resistant prostate cancer (which is the form of prostate cancer that kills men) for which older drugs no longer work. Zytiga has shown promise both for treatment of men with prostate cancer prior to their surgery (shrinks tumor before removing prostate) AND later in the course of the disease. Bottom line, Zytiga is the tip of a very positive iceberg of new prostate cancer drugs in the pipeline so the fact that it works well is good news. Fans of another prostate cancer therapy, Provenge, which involves the use of immune cells and costs $100K, nit-picked at issues related to Zytiga, but overall I think Zytiga is more promising personally.

Third, it was reported that taking breaks from hormone-deprivation therapy may increase mortality. Let me explain. One of the weapons against prostate cancer is treatment of patients with drugs that block production of testosterone because testosterone is like fuel for prostate cancer. However, inevitably cancers find a way to become resistant to the anti-testosterone therapy. Nonetheless hormone deprivation is an important tool and can keep cancer at bay for years. One such drug is called Lupron. The catch is that Lupron has very nasty side effects. My father, who had prostate cancer at age 58 and then had a recurrence about a couple decades later, took Lupron for a time. He hated it. Most men do hate Lupron and hence the impetus for wanting to take a break now and then from getting the hormone deprivation therapy. Now scientists report that taking such breaks, which helps alleviate the nasty side effects of the drug, has a cost: men taking breaks from hormone deprivation therapy are more likely to have their cancer be worse. Bottom line, this is not unexpected, but is still bad news that if men want the max benefit from anti-hormone therapies they are going to have to put up with the side effects without breaks.

If you have additional questions, feel free to email me (see contact info for blog). I’m not a medical doctor, but I am a cancer biologist and prostate cancer survivor.

4 thoughts on “Making sense of all the big prostate cancer headlines of the last few weeks”

    1. Thanks, David. Very interesting article. Rings very true to me as a prostate cancer survivor who is also a scientist.

  1. All PSA testing? The way I studied it-granted, three years ago-, there was controversy about using it as a screening tool, but there was consensus on using it to keep watch of already diagnosed cancers….

    1. All screening PSA testing. There is zero debate about monitoring PSA testing of survivors, but that makes up a tiny fraction of all PSA testing.

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