How is prostate cancer currently treated? Dr. Andrew Armstrong provides an overview of treatment options for prostate cancer patients across various stages of the disease.
Dr. Andrew J. Armstrong is a medical oncologist and director of clinical research at the Duke Cancer Institute’s Center for Prostate and Urologic Cancers. For more information on Dr. Armstrong here.
What are the treatment options that are currently available for prostate cancer patients?
It’s a really important question, and I would say it depends. In early disease, when cancer is picked up early, many patients are cured. Prostate cancer is the number one survived cancer in the United States. It’s important to realize that and kind of take a deep breath and realize that most patients beat prostate cancer. Only about one out of six men will suffer a relapse or develop metastatic disease or Stage IV disease that requires more of a lifelong journey of therapy.
So, most men come into this because they’ve been screened by their primary care doctor. They had a high PSA, they underwent a biopsy, they were found to have cancer.
And the first decision, particularly for example at our Duke multidisciplinary clinic, the first decision that we always share with the patient, and as part of shared decision-making, is we give information about prognosis and risk using the PSA level, the biopsy information, staging information if imaging is done.
And then giving a category or a risk group to that patient can help them decide what are the options that are nationally recommended, internationally recommended by evidence-based guidelines. The most important decision is whether that prostate cancer needs treatment right now at all, and the initial observation or active surveillance is a very valuable “first do no harm” approach for men with very low risk or low risk types of prostate cancer. With a low-grade cancer, low PSA, low stage, and that’s about a third of all patients.
That’s a huge number of men are told they have cancer, but they actually don’t need initial treatment.
And they need to be explained to, why we’re not going to treat that cancer, why it’s so safe, and why mortality is not high in that patient population when we don’t treat it, and how we do active surveillance. For example, imaging with MRI, repeat biopsies. And a lot of patients do appreciate that because they’re not undergoing surgery or radiation and they’re not being harmed by those treatments. That would be called overtreatment. That’s not for everybody, though.
So, just like prostate cancer comes in different flavors, treatments come in different flavors. So, there’s things where the Gleason score is higher, the stage may be higher, the PSA is higher, and the risk to the patient is higher. And when we get into that more intermediate- and high-risk situation, treatment is going to be necessary. But then we’ll have a menu of treatment options that is important to talk through. Typically surgery, radiation, sometimes alternatives to that.
Sometimes combinations with hormonal therapy, which we call systemic therapy. The drugs that work throughout the body.
What about for patients who have advanced disease?
The word “advanced” can mean different things to different people. Advanced can mean metastatic disease. It can mean disease that’s not curable. But advanced can also mean that it’s high risk. That the disease is still confined to the prostate, but it’s aggressive, and that if it’s not handled quickly with a multidisciplinary approach, for example, it has a high risk of occurrence.
So, advanced disease can mean aggressive, in need of treatment. Sometimes it can be cured if it’s confined to the prostate. Sometimes it requires more than just one treatment modality, such as surgery followed by radiation, or radiation plus some of the newer hormonal therapies.
For men with stage IV disease, that means disease that has left the prostate and gone to distant sites, we have very effective therapies that can still control this type of advanced disease for many, many years, so it is important to realize how far we’ve come with all of our therapies and to reassure the patient and their family about the good prognosis, even in the worst-case scenario, for many patients.