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How to Play an Active Role in Your Prostate Cancer Treatment and Care Decisions

How to Play an Active Role in Your Prostate Cancer Treatment and Care Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What steps can you take to engage in your prostate cancer treatment and care decisions? Dr. Atish Choudhury discusses current and emerging prostate cancer therapies, reviews key treatment decision-making factors, and shares advice for self-advocacy.

Dr. Atish Choudhury is the Co-Director of the Prostate Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham & Women’s Cancer Center.
Learn more about Dr. Choudhury here.

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prostate cancer treatment decisions

Using Your Voice to Partner in Your Prostate Cancer Treatment Decisions



Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s webinar. Today, we’re going to explore the goals of advanced prostate cancer treatment and discuss tools for playing an active role in your care decisions.

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Joining us today is Dr. Atish Choudhury. Dr. Choudhury, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Choudhury:        

Hello. Thank you so much for the invitation. So, I’m a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and I’m the codirector of the prostate cancer center at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. And I serve as the chair of the Lank Center for Translational Research as well, and ’t’s my pleasure to be here.


Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to join us. Today, we’re talking about advanced prostate cancer.

What exactly does “advanced” mean in terms of this cancer?

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yeah. So, it’s actually a pretty broad term, and it can mean different things in different contexts. But generally, what it means is that it’s cancer that has extended outside of the confines of the boundaries of the prostate itself – either locally where it is into the surrounding fat around the prostate capsule or to local lymph nodes, where it could also spread to other parts of the body – like lymph nodes, bone, and other organs.

So, it can really mean different things depending on the context.


Before we get into the types of treatment available, let’s start by understanding the goals of treatment. What are the goals of advanced stage prostate cancer?

Dr. Choudhury:              

So, in general, the goal of treating any cancer is to a live a long, happy, healthy life with limited quality of life troubles from the cancer itself or its treatments. And so, for localized prostate cancer, that generally means treating with curative intent – that we give radiation or surgery, potentially in combination with hormonal treatments so that the cancer is taken care of and people can be cured and not need further treatments moving forward at all.

And there are situations, even in fairly advanced cases, where that’s a reasonable and accomplishable goal. And there are other situations that we might not be able to cure the cancer completely, but the treatments can be quite effective at keeping it under control and keep people with a very good quality of life so that prostate cancer is not a day-to-day burden for them and that they can survive with cancer for years, and years, and years.


It sounds like these goals would be determined with members of your healthcare team. So, who is typically on a patient’s prostate cancer healthcare team?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah. So, generally, the consultations here at Dana-Farber are multidisciplinary, with a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a urologic oncologist – so, a surgeon.

And so, if a patient is a good candidate for treatment to the prostate itself, then certainly, the surgeon and the radiation oncologist will talk about those treatments. And if the treatment is primarily with medications, then the medical oncologist will generally sort of take the lead. But there is often a role for local treatment to the prostate itself, even in cancer that’s spread beyond the prostate. So, that’s why the multidisciplinary consultation is so important.


Right. What do you feel is the patient’s role as a team member?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Absolutely. So, I think it is very important for the patient to make sure that they come into these multidisciplinary meetings with questions around “What is my stage?” “What are the choices?” “What do I expect with treatment? Without treatment? With the various treatment options?” And basically, to take in the advice that they’re getting from the different members of the multidisciplinary team, and really think about how that’s impactful for them and their goals for themselves and what they really hope for the short term and for the long term.

I think what gets tricky is that there’s really very not-great sources of information that’s out there online and in YouTube videos and things like that, and I think it does play an important role for the patient to really understand what are the real high-quality sources of information – they tend to come from academic medical centers like ours. And certainly, we do encourage second opinions at other high-quality, high-volume centers so that the patients understand that the recommendations that are being made are generally made based on the based data and with people with a lot of experience at treating their kind of cancer.


What about caregivers? How do they fit into the team?

Dr. Choudhury:             

Caregivers are critical because patients are not always the most expressive at, really, what their wants, and needs, and desires are. And especially when they’re on treatment, sometimes they’re not so expressive around the things that are bothering them on a day-to-day basis.

So, the caregivers are really important for communication with us to be kind of another set of eyes and ears in terms of kind of reporting what the patient’s symptoms are or what their goals or desires are that maybe they themselves don’t feel comfortable expressing. But they also play an important role in helping us with, kind of, lifestyle recommendations to the patient. Because certainly, much of the process of doing well with prostate cancer treatments is kind of lifestyle modifications – makes sure you’re eating healthy, exercising regularly – and the caregivers can play a very important role in making sure that patients stick to that kind of regimen as well.    


I would think one of the issues for a patient too is that just having a cancer can be overwhelming and can make it difficult for them to even remember all the questions and concerns that they have.

Dr. Choudhury:            

Yeah, that’s absolutely critical, and the caregivers play a very important role. So, often, people who are not partnered, for example, will just bring a friend to these appointments just to be that second set of eyes and ears.


Dr. Choudhury, we received this question from an audience member prior to the program: What is palliative care?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, palliative care is really a branch of medicine that helps with symptom management. And so, that symptom management doesn’t necessarily have to be end-of-life sort of symptoms relating to death and dying. It can be just along the way to help with managing the symptoms related to cancer and its treatment, but also to be kind of another medical provider to help with communication of goals of care – what’s really bothersome, what’s really important – so that we kind of incorporate those wishes and desires into the management decisions that we make.

So, a patient does not have to be at end-of-life to engage with palliative care. Certainly, even earlier engagement with palliative care can be helpful to maximize quality of life along the treatment journey. But as symptoms become more bothersome, certainly, our palliative care colleagues can be incredibly helpful – not just in helping manage pain, but also nausea, also depression and psychological side effects. So, they’re a really critical part of our treatment team.


Yeah. I think we have a pretty good understanding and the goals of treatment. So, let’s walk through the types of therapy that are used today to treat prostate cancer.

If you would start with surgery?

Dr. Choudhury:            

Sure. So, surgery is a radical prostatectomy, and they take out the prostate – they take out neighboring structures called seminal vesicles, they take out the surrounding fat, and they’ll usually take out some neighboring lymph nodes as well. And there are advantages of surgery in that when the prostate is out, the pathologist can examine the whole prostate front to back, side to side, as well as those neighboring structures to really understand the stage of the cancer – “Where is it?” – and also, the grade – “Is it a high-grade cancer, a low-grade cancer, somewhere in the middle?”

And it really helps guide “What is the risk of developing recurrence afterwards, and are there further treatments that we should be giving after the surgery? For example, radiation to the prostate bed to decrease the risk of recurrences. Surgery does have its own set of potential side effects and complications, so it’s not appropriate for everyone, but in general, that’s the process.


What other treatment options? You mentioned radiation. What else is there?         

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yeah, so, radiation comes in two forms: there’s seed radiation, which is implantable little radioactive pellets that are implanted throughout the prostate. And then, there’s external radiation, and that can be given in several forms and over several schedules that it’s really important to discuss with the care team.

The other forms of treatment that people on this call might’ve heard about or read about are in a category called “focal treatments,” and these are basically ways to – and the term we use is a blade but zap – an area of the prostate using lasers, or high-intensity ultrasound, or with freezing an area of the prostate, or with something called “irreversible electroporation.”

These are basically all ways to, again, zap an area of the prostate either with heat or with cold with the intention of killing off cancer cells in an area. And the trouble is that none of these treatments have actually been demonstrated to improve outcomes related to prostate cancer compared to just surveillance alone. And it does complicate, sort of, the monitoring afterwards to see if something has come back.

But there might be very selected patients where there’s an area of cancer that’s seen on a scan – like an MRI – with no cancer seen outside of that area who might decide to pursue this possibility of focal treatment with the goal of maybe putting off the need for something like radiation or surgery. But that’s something that really should be discussed with a multidisciplinary team so that people really understand what they’re getting into in terms of risks and potential benefits.

So, those treatments are not really considered standard at this time.


What about hormonal therapy?        

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, hormonal therapy plays a role in the treatment of prostate cancer, really depending on the stage and the other treatments that are being considered. So, for example, if a patient is going to surgery for a localized prostate cancer, in general, we wouldn’t use hormonal treatment either before or after the surgery unless they’re planned for radiation after the surgery.

However, for patients who have intermediate risk or higher localized prostate cancer and are getting radiation, then we will often recommend hormonal treatments, which are basically testosterone-lowering drugs, to make the radiation work as well as possible. And then, for patients who have advanced cancer beyond where surgery or radiation is going to be of help, then, hormonal treatments are important to treat the cancer wherever it is.

And that’s because prostate cancer cells, wherever they are in the body – wherever they’re in the prostate itself, or in lymph nodes, or bones, or other organs – depend on the testosterone in your body to supply a fuel – to support its growth and survival.

And so, lowering the level of testosterone in the body basically deprives the cancer cells of that fuel and starts a process of killing cancer cells even without any need for radiation, or chemotherapy, or things like that. However, hormonal treatments are not curative. They don’t kill all the cancer – they kill some and put the rest to sleep. And so, if you stop the hormonal treatment, the cancer will grow back, and that’s why it’s not a treatment on its own for localized prostate cancer.

And that’s also why, for prostate cancer that’s spread, we often add on additional medications to the testosterone-lowering drugs to be more effective at really killing the cancer wherever it is compared to the testosterone suppression alone.


Oh, I see. For advanced disease, what treatments are available for patients that are hormone-sensitive or -resistant?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah, so “hormone-sensitive” means that the cancer has advanced, but the patient hasn’t started on testosterone-lowering drugs yet. And so, as I had mentioned, testosterone lowering is really the backbone of treatment of these patients. And so, there are additional treatments that have been demonstrated previously to be effective after testosterone-lowering by itself stops working, and these include a chemotherapy drug called docetaxel. And in addition, there are more potent hormonal drugs called abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide, and darolutamide.

And the role of these other drugs is to block hormonal signaling within the cancer cells from hormones other than testosterone. And so, by doing the more potent hormonal drug in conjunction with the testosterone lowering, that leads to a much deeper response – much more tumor shrinkage – and, it turns out, also prolonged survival in patients treated with those combination treatments – compared top people who are treated with testosterone lowering alone and then receive these drugs later.

So, there’s something about treating more aggressively at the beginning in this hormone-sensitive state that plays out in prolongation of survival. And not only prolonged survival, but improved quality of life due to delaying the symptoms of cancer grown and progression.



Dr. Choudhury:   

When we then talk about castration resistant disease, certainly we use the same classes of drugs, but then, there’s a wider armamentarium of things that we use that include, again, other kinds of chemotherapy.

There are radiation drugs, and an approved drug Radium-223. And there’s another drug on the horizon called Lutetium PSMA. There are immune therapy drugs – something called Sipuleucel-T – and then, this is also a situation where we do genetic testing of the cancer to understand if there’re certain –what we call “therapeutic vulnerabilities.”

Other treatment options that are available based on the genetics of the cancer that might be helpful in some people? And specific options include a chemo-immune therapy called “Keytruda” in a small subset of patients with particular genetic changes involving genes involved in mismatched repair of DNA. And then, there’s another set of targeted treatments called “PARP inhibitors” for certain sets of patients who have alterations in genes involved in homologous recombination repair of DNA.

So, that’s all very complicated, and so that’s why it’s important to get treated with high-volume providers of prostate cancer patients so that they’re really aware and onboard with these various treatment options that are available.


Yeah. Where do clinical trials fit in?

Dr. Choudhury:       

So, clinical trials can fit in anywhere along the treatment trajectory for prostate cancer. It’s not something that’s reserved for kind of late-stage disease. So, for example, for people with localized disease, there are different types of treatment strategies that might be available to maybe enhance the activity of the surgery or the radiation that’s planned. And so, we might consider a clinical trial even for localized prostate cancer.

And then, anywhere along the way, there are standard treatments that are available, and then, there are some experimental approaches that might be available. And the experimental approaches might be to add an additional drug to the standard or to actually – what we call “deescalate treatment” – give a little bit less of the medication and see if the outcomes are the same. And these are tests.

And so, the control arm, when there’s a randomized trial, is generally considered a standard of care. And then, the experimental arm is some alteration or deviation from that standard. But many of our trials are also single-arm trials where we’re testing some experimental regimen that all patients who participate in the trial will take part in, and it’s really important for the patient to ask, “What are the clinical trials available?” “What are the alternatives as far as standard treatments?” and “Are there other clinical trials other than the one that’s being discussed,” that might be appropriate for them?


Are there emerging approaches that patients should know about?   

Dr. Choudhury:        

Yeah. So, a lot of the emerging approaches are related to the genetics of the prostate cancer, as I just mentioned. And then, these different forms of radiation drugs – in addition to the ones that have already demonstrated survival advantage, there are other ones in the pipeline. And then, one thing that patients are very curious about is immune therapy approaches to prostate cancer.

Now, the standard kind of immune therapy drugs that are approved for lung cancer, and melanoma, and kidney cancers don’t tend to work particular well for prostate cancer. But there are many clinical trials trying to combine those kinds of drugs with other drugs or have newer approaches to immune therapies that patients with advanced cancer can certainly ask about.

Again, all of this is really experimental, and people need to understand that these sorts of approaches aren’t going to help everyone. But participating in a clinical trial allows our patients to contribute to knowledge that can be useful for other patients down the line.


Right. Now that we’ve delved into the types of treatment, let’s talk about what goes into deciding on an approach. What do you typically consider when determining the best treatment approach or option for a patient?

Dr. Choudhury:   

So, the starting point and the ending point is the patient themselves. And so, “the patient” means “What is their age? What is their fitness level? What are their activities? What’s the overall life expectancy? What are there other medical issues?” And then, we consider the cancer – “What is the stage? What is the grade? Where has it spread to, if it’s spread?”

And then, we try to incorporate all of those pieces with data – with clinical trials that have already been reported – and we have a lot of data in prostate cancer from patients who’ve participated in clinical trials, often randomized to one approach versus another, that gives us a sense of “What are the approaches that really benefit patients in terms of increasing likelihood of cure or prolonging the survival?”

And so, once we incorporate all of those things, we can come up with some treatment suggestions, and then patient preference on those suggestions obviously plays a very important role. But sometimes, we start down a line, and the patient is having troublesome side effects or it’s not working as well as we’d really hoped, and it’s important to be adaptive and to change things if things are not going down a route that we’d really hoped. So, that’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not that you make a treatment plan at the first visit and that’s the plan that’s stuck with throughout the whole course of things.

It’s a conversation at every visit on how things are going in terms of how the patients are doing and how the cancer is responding. And then, again, try to manage side effects as well as we can and adjust things if we need to along the way – and maybe switch to something that’s potentially going to be better tolerated or more effective, depending on what we see.


Right. It sounds like there are many factors to weigh when making this decision. I’d like to address a list of common concerns about treatment that we’ve heard from the community. So, I’d love to get your take on these. “There’s nothing that can be done about advanced prostate cancer.” Is that true?

Dr. Choudhury:           

So, that is very much untrue in that even patients with pretty advanced prostate cancer – even what we call “high-volume” kinds of prostate cancer – can live for years, and years, and years with appropriate treatments.

And the concern, oftentimes, is that the way that we get those years, and years, and years are with treatments that lower levels of testosterone, and I’m guessing that some of your questions coming up are related to concerns around side effects of treatment. But many of our patients tolerate those side effects pretty well and can live quite a good, and vigorous, and fulfilling life even with pretty advanced prostate cancer.


The next one: “Clinical trials are a last-resort treatment option.”

Dr. Choudhury:   

Yeah, so, as I’d mentioned before, clinical trials can be appropriate anywhere along the treatment trajectory of prostate cancer, and they are often being compared against standards which are often pretty good, but can we make them better? And certainly, participating in clinical trials isn’t for everyone, but for a long of our patients who are interested in seeing if an experimental approach might be beneficial to them or contributing some knowledge to patients down the line really do find trial participation to be quite fulfilling.


All right. The next one is: “Prostate cancer isn’t genetic, so I don’t need to be tested.” Is that the case?

Dr. Choudhury:        

No. So, it turns out that prostate cancer is actually one of our most heritable cancers. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of the predisposition to prostate cancer is actually genetic, or inherited based on family. So, the part that’s tricky and the part that is hard to maybe explain to patients is that a lot of that heritability is not encompassed in particular cancer genes in the way that many people are familiar with with breast and ovarian cancers, which are often linked to genes called “BRCA-1” and “BRCA-2.” So, a small subset of patients with prostate cancer do have alterations in that BRCA-2 gene, or BRCA-1, or ATM, or some other genes involved in breast and ovarian cancers.

And that does impact, potentially, their treatments down the line, and certainly is impactful for themselves, their siblings, their children as far as, potentially, screening recommendations for other cancers. But oftentimes, we’ll do one of these tests in patients who have a pretty extensive family history of prostate cancer, and they come out negative, and the patient is very confused because they clearly have a family history, but it’s because not all the risk of prostate cancer is actually encompassed in these gene tests that we run.


Ah, okay. The next concern is “I’ll lose all sexual function when I receive treatment.”

Dr. Choudhury:         

So, it very much depends exactly what the treatment is, and what’s being offered, and what the recovery is like.

So, for example, for patients who go into a prostatectomy and have very good erectile function, it’s not inevitable that you’ll lose your sexual functioning after a prostatectomy. There is a process – we kind of refer to it as “penile rehab” – of using medications like a Viagra or Sialis to restore the blood flow. You could use certain things like vacuum pump devices to restore the blood flow, and again, it’s not inevitable that people are going to lose their sexual functioning after a prostatectomy.

Even with testosterone suppression, while it plays a role in libido and erectile function, it’s not inevitable that people lose their libido and erectile function completely, even on these drugs. But certainly, more often than not, people will lose their erectile function on testosterone-lowering medications.

And so, there are alternative ways to get erections – involving, again, use of vacuum pump devices or injections that people can give themselves into the penis. People can have penile implant surgery to be able to get erections that way. And so, it’s really dependent on what the situation is.

Again, none of those more mechanical interventions are really ideal, but particularly when people have a defined course of treatment – for example, a surgery or radiation with a brief course of hormones – people can recover erectile function even after those sorts of interventions. And if they can’t, then we do have other approaches that will allow people to still be able to be sexually intimate with their partner after all of the treatments are completed.


Dr. Choudhury, one more concern: “My symptoms and side effects can’t be managed.”

Dr. Choudhury:           

Yeah. So, again, it’s very rare that we run into situations where there are side effects or symptoms that can’t be managed at all, in the sense that we have very effective medications against hot flashes, or moodiness, or pain, or –just fatigue. And certainly, lifestyle plays a big role in this. Also, a lot of the symptoms that people express are related to underlying depression and anxiety issues, and certainly, engaging with a mental health provider can be helpful in terms of managing those as well.

And then, there’s a lot of nonpharmacologic treatments – meaning nonmedication approaches that can provide people a lot of benefit in terms of their quality of life, and we have an integrative center called the Zakim Center for Integrative Medicine that helps with the relaxation techniques, and massage, and yoga, and acupuncture…

And people find different approaches to help manage these symptoms and side effects. And so, it’s very unusual where we run into a situation where the side effects are unbearable and unmanageable. Usually, we can manage them in some form of way that allow people to have, again, a good quality of life and a meaningful life, even on prostate cancer treatment.


Thank you, that’s really helpful. I’d like to talk about the term “shared decision making.” What does that mean to you, exactly?       

Dr. Choudhury:   

So, shared decision-making really means that when the physician conveys information to a patient, that the patient really understands what’s being said, and what, really, the alternatives are – and the real risks and the benefits of the different alternatives. And so, if a patient goes to see a surgeon and they say, “Well, we should take this out,” and there’s never really discussion of what the risks and benefits of the alternatives are –and the alternatives could be just watching, or radiation, or even more intensive treatment, then that’s not really shared decision making.

But what I think is not exactly shared decision making is when the patient is getting information from really non-knowledgeable or non-reputable sources and then starts to come up with conclusions based on hearsay or people trying to sell them a product that really hasn’t been FDA approved or really tested. And so, those are situations where when the information is really not good, then we can run into troubles with communications. But there are a lot of really excellent sources for patient information that’s available, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation is a really good source, and a lot of the academic prostate cancer centers are really great sources of information.

And so, being educated and asking good questions is really the best way for a patient to feel comfortable that they’re not missing anything and that they’re, again, having all the information that they need to make a good choice for themselves.


Do you have any advice to help patients speak up if they’re feeling like they’re not being heard?

Dr. Choudhury:           

Sure. So, I mean, there’s never any barrier to bringing up concerns with whoever that you’re seeing, and if you feel like whoever you’re talking to isn’t being receptive to those concerns, then certainly, second opinions are very useful. But if you see multiple doctors and they’re kind of telling you the same thing based on good evidence, then you probably have to take in what they’re saying, and process it, and see if it really does apply to your particular situation.

But any cancer doctor who really has your self-interest in mind will be very open to discussing the concerns that you have, so you should absolutely bring them up.


To close, Dr. Choudhury: What would you like to leave the audience with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Choudhury:          

Yes. I’m actually incredibly hopeful. There’s been such a transformation in our diagnosis and management of prostate cancer compared to when I first started as an independent attending back in 2012. In the last ten years, there’s been so many new treatments that’ve been approved in the last decade and a lot of newer technologies available for staging patients – really finding where their prostate cancer is.

And newer technologies for treating the cancer wherever it is and in a really smart way. And so, we can really individualize our treatments for the patient that’s in front of us being a bit more intensive for people with higher-volume or higher-risk cancers, and actually potentially being able to back off treatment, and actually stopping some of the testosterone-lowering drugs in patients who are responding exceptionally well to the medications and the local treatments that we’re giving them.

And then, also, I’m really hopeful about the newer treatments and newer technologies that are on the horizon. We have newer – what we call “molecularly targeted agents.” We have new approaches involving immune therapies that are being tested – newer radiation approaches. And I feel like all of this put together allows us to, again, satisfy the goal of maintaining patients’ good, healthy, meaningful quality of life moving forward.


Yeah. Dr. Choudhury, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Choudhury:           

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s so wonderful to have this opportunity.


And thank you to all of our partners. Please continue to send in your questions to Question@PowerfulPatients.org, and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. To learn more about prostate cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit PowerfulPatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today.

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing?

Why Should You Ask Your Doctor About Prostate Cancer Genetic Testing? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why is it genetic testing important when it comes to prostate cancer care? Learn how test results could reveal more about YOUR prostate cancer and may indicate that one treatment may be more effective than another.

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

Related Resources

How Does Genetic Testing Impact Prostate Cancer Care?

Treatment Options for Advanced Prostate Cancer

What Is a Prostate Cancer Genetic Mutation?


Why should you ask your doctor about genetic testing?

The test results may predict how your prostate cancer will behave and could indicate that one type of treatment may be more effective than another type.

Genetic testing identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities, and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOU and YOUR prostate cancer.

There are two main types of genetic tests used in prostate cancer:

  • Germline or hereditary genetic testing, which is conducted via blood or saliva and identifies inherited gene mutations in the body. Germline mutations are present from birth and can be shared among family members and passed on to subsequent generations. Results can identify whether you could be at risk for another type of cancer or if your family members may need genetic counseling and testing to guide their own cancer risk.
  • The second is somatic or tumor genetic testing, which is performed through testing tumor tissue or by testing cancer cells/DNA extracted from blood to identify gene mutations that are unique to the cancer itself. It is also commonly referred to as genomic testing, biomarker testing, or molecular profiling. Somatic mutations are NOT inherited and are NOT passed on to subsequent generations or shared among family members.
  • Depending on your history, your doctor may order one–or both–of these types of tests.

So why do the test results matter?

Both germline and somatic mutation testing can identify the presence of certain genetic mutations that may help to guide your treatment plan, and germline testing specifically can inform cancer risk for you and, potentially, family members.

  • In some cases, mutations can indicate that a newer approach, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy, may work better for you.
  • Results of these tests may also help you to find a clinical trial that may be appropriate for your particular cancer.
  • And, genetic testing results could also show that your cancer has a mutation or marker that may prevent a certain therapy from being effective, sparing you from getting a treatment that won’t work well for you.

How can make sure you have had essential biomarker testing?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR prostate cancer care.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had or will receive genetic testing, including germline and somatic testing, and how the results may impact your care and treatment plan.
  • Ask whether your family members should meet with a genetic counselor or undergo testing to help gauge their risk of developing prostate cancer.
  • And, finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process and recall information.

To learn more about your prostate cancer and to access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/prostatecancer

Which Prostate Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know

Which Prostate Cancer Treatment Is Right for You? What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do you need to know before deciding which treatment is best for YOUR prostate cancer? Dr. Maha Hussain discusses the role of key tests in choosing therapy, including biomarker testing, provides tips for partnering with your care team and reviews recent research news.

Dr. Maha Hussain is the Deputy Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. Learn more about this expert here.

Download Guide

See More From INSIST! Prostate Cancer

Related Resources

How Do Genetic Mutations Impact Prostate Cancer Treatment Options?

What Is a Prostate Cancer Genetic Mutation?

What Is a Prostate Cancer Biomarker?




Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how to access the most personalized prostate cancer therapy for your individual disease and why it’s essential to insist on key testing. Before we meet our guest, let’s review a few important details. 

The reminder email you received about this program contains a link to program materials. If you haven’t already, click on that link to access information to follow along during this webinar. At the end of this program, you’ll receive a link to a program survey. Please take a moment to provide feedback about your experience today in order to help us plan future webinars.  

Finally, before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. 

All right, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Maha Hussain. Dr. Hussain, would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Hussain:

Sure. Thank you, Katherine. 

It’s my pleasure to join you. And to the audience, nice to meet you all virtually. My name is Maha Hussain. I am a genitourinary medical oncologist with a focus on prostate cancer and bladder cancer. And I am a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Medicine, and endowed professor there. And I also serve as the deputy director for the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. 


Wonderful. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us today. 

Dr. Hussain:

My pleasure. 


I’d like to start by asking about developments in prostate cancer research and treatment. Experts recently gathered at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, also known as ASCO, to share their research. 

So, what were the highlights from that meeting that you feel patients should know about? 

Dr. Hussain:

I think probably perhaps I can focus on two major – what I would consider major highlights, and those were the results from two randomized Phase III clinical trials. 

One of the trials is called the VISION trial. And the VISION trial was a Phase III randomized trial evaluating lutetium-PSMA-617 treatment in patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. And the delightful thing about this study is that that study was positive. The PSMA story has been really going on for a few years now. And there’s the PSMA for purposes of scans, imaging, to assess the cancer. And the FDA just approved a PSMA PET imaging this year. 

I think it was in May when it was approved. And that would help better define if the cancer is spread or not, and it help with the decision regarding treatment. But the second part is treatment purposes, so identifying the cancer location and trying to attack it with a specific sort of targeted attack to the tumor is really important. 

And so, the FDA is currently looking at this particular agent. And I am hopeful that we will hear soon from the FDA, hopefully before the end of the year, and maybe – who knows? – maybe by summer, middle summer or end of summer. Because I do think that would be a major benchmark in there. And so, that’s one thing. 

The other clinical trial that I thought was interesting from a data perspective – and for disclosure, I am one of the investigators on this study. And this was an intergroup Southwest Oncology, or SWOG, sponsored clinical trial. So, it’s a federal study that Dr. Aggarwal presented. And this was a study that was aiming at maximizing, again, the anti-tumor therapy with the use of a drug which I call is the younger brother of abiraterone. 

So, abiraterone is a drug that is FDA-approved and has been around for several years right now for both castration-resistant prostate cancer and certainly hormone-sensitive metastatic disease. And so, TAK 700 (Orteronel) is a younger brother, I call it, of abiraterone. And one of the potential advantageous when this trial was designed was the fact that you don’t need to use prednisone. And the trial was completed. It was a national clinical trial. And what was interesting is that there is certainly what appears to be a potential benefit, but not in terms of the conclusive based on the way the study was designed.

Having said that, what I thought was remarkable is that patients who basically were only on the control arm was LHRH therapy, so this could’ve been like Lupron, Zoladex, or something like that plus bicalutamide, which is what we call combined androgen deprivation. And that was sort of like the strongest control arm we could do at the time when the trial was designed. 

Remarkably, the patients who were on that arm had a median survival of basically 70 months. That’s the median. That’s the bell-shaped curve with the number in the middle. Seventy months is probably the longest ever in any other randomized trials in this disease space, in the hormone sensitive space. So, that tells us is that men are living longer with prostate cancer, even though it’s metastatic disease; and, yes, it’s not necessarily curable, but men are living longer. And it’s a function of all of the better treatments that are supportive care and everything that was going on.  

And so, the control arm, as I mentioned, was the 70.2 months. The actual experimental arm was about 81.1 months. And again, I don’t know where things will go from this. Obviously, I’m not the sponsor not the FDA. But the point here is that men are living longer, and so wellness and health become even more so important than we ever did. And as I tell my patients, every day you’ll live longer. The odds of living longer is there because of better treatments coming on. 

So, to me – not to take too much time from the interview – to me, these were the two highlights: new, approved – I’m sorry, new treatment that I’m hoping will be FDA-approved and, obviously, the fact that men are living longer.  


How can patients keep up to date on the research that’s going on? 

Dr. Hussain:

I’m a bit biased, obviously. I’m a member of ASCO. 

And what I would recommend to my patients is to look at the cancer.net website. The cancer.net is a website that is an ASCO-generated website specifically for patients and families to review. It is vetted. The committees are not run just by physicians, oncologists, a multidisciplinary team, but also patient representative. So, the lingo and the presentation are lay-friendly, I call it, there. 

The other part I would say, the NCI website, and the American Cancer Society, the American Urological Association. I would say there’s a lot of stuff on the media. The difficulty is vetting what is sort of fake, what is not so accurate, or bias versus there. I also think that the NCCN has also some resources for patients. 

And one thing I always tell patients: explore, look, but make sure that you talk to your doctor about the meanings of everything because sometimes it can be not – it could be misleading, I should say, or maybe not very clear on what the implications are. 


Right. One thing that’s a topic on the mind of many people right now is COVID. 

Dr. Hussain:



Is the COVID vaccination safe and effective for prostate cancer patients? 

Dr. Hussain:

The answer is yes and yes. So, I have to say, by default, I deal mostly with older men. Age brings in other comorbidities. And certainly, while I see all kinds of shades of gray in terms of the disease extent, going all the way from newly diagnosed all the way to end-stage disease, the bulk of the patients I end up seeing tend to have more systemic disease and have other issues going on. And I have to say, surprisingly, less than a handful of my patients had the infection. 

Only one required hospitalization with supportive measure, but not even needed incubation; however, he needed a lot of CPAP and other respiratory support. I’m not aware of any of my patients or my colleague’s patients who deal with prostate cancer that have died from COVID. So, I would say that’s the good news and that we have not seen a big hit in the population that I deal with. 

I also know that I would say 99.9 percent of my patients have opted to be vaccinated, and they have tolerated the vaccine just fine. There’s only one case, which I actually even saw just this week, who had been vaccinated but have a very, very severe end-stage disease with significantly compromised bone morrow, who got infected but hospitalized for a few days and is recovering. 

And so, I would say just by the pool of patients I see, my answers are yes and yes. 


Very good. Thank you. 

Dr. Hussain:

And I would encourage all the audience to go get vaccinated. I myself am vaccinated. And I’ve advised all my family members to be vaccinated, just to clarify that too. 


Good. Good to know. Dr. Hussain, we’re going to spend most of this conversation talking about advanced prostate cancer. But before we move on, would you give us a brief overview of the stages of prostate cancer? 

Dr. Hussain:

Absolutely. So, with any cancer, we count sort of like four stages. But I would say in prostate cancer the biggest thing is when the cancer is newly diagnosed, which could be confined to the prostate or locally advanced, meaning the cancer has gotten outside the capsule of the prostate but still within that pelvic region. 

There is the group of patients who have pelvic lymph nodes at time of diagnosis. And of course, that is the patients who have systemic disease, which would be technically stage four. Now, the systemic disease implies any abnormality that is found on scans that is beyond the public region. So, that could be lymph nodes in the back of the belly. That could be thoracic lymph nodes. That could be neck nodes. That could be lung lesions, of course, or bone, or liver. 

Now, the most common area where the cancer goes to is really – when we talk about metastatic disease – is the bone. And then lymph is another area where the cancer goes to. Prostate cancer that is confined to the prostate is curable in the vast majority of patients. There is a category of men who undergo surgery or radiation, and then their PSA begins to go up afterwards. 

And this is what we call biochemical relapse. And this is a situation where we know that, in all likelihood obviously, especially of the patients who have had their prostate out, that the cancer has spread. With the current imagine, a good chunk of times, we do not find anything because we’re able to pick up PSA that goes from undetectable to 0.2 to 0.3, but there’s not enough cancer to show up on the scans. We’re hoping, obviously, the better scans, the PET Axumin scan, the PSMA scans are going to help us to identify sites of metastases. 

But this is a group of men where if there is no cancer visible and the only thing we’re dealing with is PSA that’s going up, if they’ve had surgery, then there’s room for what we call salvage therapy with radiation and hormonal treatment. The case is a bit different if there’s only just the prostate – if radiation was given previously. And of course, we talked about metastatic disease. 


Yeah. Once someone has been diagnosed, what tests are used to help understand the aggressiveness of their disease and their overall prognosis? 

Dr. Hussain:

Well, I think there is different basic things, as in, what was the extent of the cancer? How did it look under the microscope? And what is the PSA levels? So, these are the general things. There are different sort of genomic panels that the urologist will use to kind of decipher and other things to kind of help with figuring out aggressiveness and things like that. What I would say is this, is a patient who is diagnosed and has a cancer, and at a minimum has what we consider a Gleason 7 prostate cancer – so, that’s the scoring system that is done with the original Gleason score, or the new patterns where it’s talking about intermediate risk to high risk – to me, this is a cancer that needs to be treated. 

And again, that’s all to do with if a person has other comorbidities, they have some other terminal condition that’s a separate story. But talking generically, that would be when we would recommend. And these are the patients that are generally not seen by the medical oncologist. They’re seen by the urologist, and then they can refer them to radiation oncology also for consultation. 


Now that we understand how test results can help inform a patient’s cancer and how it may behave. Let’s discuss how they can affect treatment options for men with advanced disease. First, let’s do a brief review of the treatment types currently available. There’s hormone therapy, right. What else? 

Dr. Hussain:

Perhaps, it’s simpler if we focus on advanced disease, specifically metastatic disease. 

So, if that’s the deal, then the backbone of treatment is hormone treatment. And it really is. We call it hormone, but technically it’s an anti-hormone. What we’re trying to do is shut down the hormonal pathway that stimulate the testes, which is the factory that makes testosterone. So, we are looking at shutting down testosterone production from the testes in order to starve the cancer. 

Now, the male hormone is produced predominantly – somewhere about 95 percent of it is made by the testes, and then there are about 5 percent-ish that comes from other sources. These are, again, male hormones like the adrenal gland and so on. And there was a while ago some research – I want to say from the MD Anderson crowd, but this is two years ago – that suggested also that the tumor may start to make sort of in-house production of male hormone to support itself. 

Now, having said that, again, testes continue to be the source of the majority of the male hormone. And so, historically, the first data that showed benefit was actually by surgically removing the testes, which is what we call orchiectomy or bilateral orchiectomy. And then medications began hitting the market and were evaluated in the late ’80s and then 1990s, beginning with Lupron – which by the way, in the ’80s, it was an injection that the patient had to give themselves every day, which is remarkable. 

But even then, there is a personal preference by patients to go and take injections as opposed to go through surgery with orchiectomy. But still, I would say for some patients it may be an option until it ought to be discussed as an option. Then what we know is this, is because of the potential other sources for the male hormone, the concept of what we call combined androgen depravation was being evaluated. 

And again, this goes back to the ’80s when the first drug was flutamide and then bicalutamide, and there are other drugs that became. And they kind of added a sprinkle, I call it, to survival. But it wasn’t dramatic, huge differences in survival. And so, generally, while we used it, everybody believed in using it. Moving forward, the drugs like abiraterone, enzalutamide, apalutamide are the three hormonal drugs that have demonstrated conclusively really an advantage in terms of prolonging life when added to the Lupron. 

So, what I tell my patients is that, when it comes to hormone treatment there is really no way around it. You can delay it. Some people are exploring for some patients who don’t have a lot of cancer, maybe a couple of areas, maybe just do targeted radiation and then leave the person alone to buy them some treatment-free time. 

And, to me, this is where the discussion that has to happen with the patient. What is the objective? Is the objective to kind of be ahead of the game and maximally treat the cancer with the hope of prolonging life? Or is the objective to delay treatment? And I would tell you that, with these types of conversation, nine out of 10 or 9.5 out of 10 men opt for moving aggressively up front with management. So, that’s that. 

Now, the one thing I should point out, one of the trials that also was a landmark trial in this disease was the study CHAARTED, which was an intergroup clinical trial at the time it was designed, led by ECOG, and the PI was Dr. Chris Sweeney. I was part of the team that worked on the design also of the study. 

And that was a trial that looked at adding docetaxel to hormone therapy, versus hormone therapy alone, to try to see if it adds something. Historically, all the chemotherapies prior to that that were added to hormone treatment for patients with newly diagnosed metastatic disease had not delivered. And docetaxel did. 

However, one thing I should point out, based on that trial – and I don’t want to go into too much details for the sake of time – the patients that seemed to be benefiting were the patients that had more aggressive, more disease in their system. And so, liver metastases, lung metastases spread in the bone at different areas, not like few isolated areas in the spine or the pelvis, but much more than that. 

And so, for the patients who have what we call high-volume prostate cancer based on scans – and I’m happy to explain what that means if it’s needed – these are the patients that I would offer either the docetaxel plus hormone treatment, which is the injection, or the injection plus the hormonal pills that I mentioned earlier. 


What about targeted therapy? How is that used? 

Dr. Hussain:

Okay. So, let’s begin with the molecularly targeted therapy. So, as we speak right now, for patients who have newly diagnosed metastatic disease that we call hormone sensitive, molecularly targeted therapy is not standard of care. So, I would encourage patients who may qualify for clinical trial to be involved in those. The flipside is – we can talk about it – is that molecularly targeted therapies, specifically with PARP inhibitors have pretty much entered in the space of prostate cancer with a couple of drugs that were FDA-approved. 

The other way of targeted treatment, which would be what we refer to targeted radiation, this would be a different story. This is not systemic treatment. This is a local treatment. And what is done is basically if patients do not have a lot of cancer in their body based on scans, and only certain areas, and they are starting systemic therapy, they can certainly consult with a radiation oncologist to target radiation to areas that are visible on scan. So, if somebody has a couple of, let’s say, pelvic bone lesions, maybe a lymph node, and they are already starting systemic therapy, they can consult with a radiation oncologist focal radiation. And so, that would be the general scheme. 


Many patients are confused about the role of genetics and biomarker testing in prostate cancer care. 

For people who haven’t heard of some of these terms before, let’s go into the definitions. So, what is genomic or biomarker testing, first of all?  

Dr. Hussain: So, I think there’s one thing. Maybe I can explain because the wording can be confusing. So, there is the genetics, and there is the genomics. The genetics would be what we inherit from our families. So, this would be present in our body. The genomics testing would be to look for what the structure of the genes of the cancer itself, cancer cells itself. Now, that doesn’t mean that this was inherited. It’s just that this is a renegade, and it evolved. And that is what is going to show up. 

The reason these two are important, both of them have implications potentially for treatment or perhaps clinical trials. And again, with the PARP inhibitors, the BRCA-like genes will have implications for treatment sort of for resistance cancers. 

With regard to the genetics, the implications are for, again, inheritance of family and potential risk for blood relatives. Now, there are panels that are FDA-approved for the purpose of genetic testing. And the requirement or the indications right now, anybody who presents with metastatic disease or an aggressive disease and diagnosis, the recommendation is to proceed with the genetic testing, certainly counseling and testing, because there are some people who prefer not to be tested. And that’s something else. 

What I tell my patients is this, even if the testing is done and it was negative for inherited genes that might put the patient family at potential higher risk, the fact that a person has prostate cancer by default puts potential, adds risks to family, to blood relatives. 

And the risks aren’t just for the males with regard to prostate cancer, but certainly breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer potentially, and things of that sort. So, this is where I think a patient needs to be discussing with their doctors. And certainly, there are many centers that have genetics counselor, and so that’s where I generally refer my patients to. I counsel them myself, and then refer them also for more discussions with genetics counselor. 


What exactly are genetic mutations? And how do they impact a treatment path? 

Dr. Hussain:

Well, I think, again, it’s the changes that happens in specific genes that may promote the aggressiveness of a cancer. And so, the BRCA gene is one of the oldest genes that have been identified in breast cancer. And essentially, the body regulates itself. 

And when cancer cells come up and they sort of – the body no longer sustains that regulation, the genetic regulation in those cancer cells. Those cancer cells will behave the way they want to. That means that they’re going to grow faster. That means they could be resistant to treatment and things like that. And so, that’s what we check for, these alterations. And there are certain medications that would allow – and again, in prostate cancer, it’s not a lot. It’s just, as I said, right now the only things that are proven is the PARP inhibitors. This is essentially to kinda gang over the cancer cell, preventing from allowing it to repair itself so it can continue to grow. 


Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests. So, for patients that aren’t all that sure, what key questions should they be asking their physician or their specialist? 

Dr. Hussain:

So, I would say when it comes to the genetics testing, I believe a patient has to consent. 

Because again, we live in the U.S., and this is a private matter for the patient. So, this generally has to be the case. Otherwise, depending on the institution, sometimes some tests will require for the overall testing for looking for any genetic alterations, general tumor alternation. Different centers have different things. But the patient should ask and say to their doctor, “Have my cancer genes been tested? Have my genes been tested? And if they have, what are the results?” Because we generally share with the patients once it’s been done. 

The other things I should point out, some of the good things that have happened recently. Up until recently, when it comes to the tumor genomic testing, tissue was required. Nowadays, the FDA has approved blood tests that several companies now run that can actually collect blood sample and basically test it for circulating tumor cell genes there. 

Now, no testing is 100 percent perfect. But in situations like patients with prostate cancer who may not have recent tissue or adequate tissue for testing, certainly doing the blood test to verify if there is anything reflective of the genes of the cancer, and that may allow for potential actionable-type treatments. Again, up until now, this is more going to apply for potential clinical trials or resistant metastatic disease. 


Are there other important factors to consider, like a patient’s age, that can help them access the best treatment for their prostate cancer? 

Dr. Hussain:

Yes. And I think that age is one factor. What I say and what I tell my fellows, age is to be respected, but used to discriminate in terms of management. 

 We all age. And certainly, the body reserve is not the same. And so, that’s why I would say that has to be respected. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot treat patients. 

And I’ll tell you, it’s interesting. There are times where you have – I have a gentleman who used to run seven miles a day. He was 87 years old. This was in my days when I used to be in Ann Arbor at University of Michigan. And the gentleman came to me, and he said, “Dr. Hussain, I don’t feel good.” And I said, “Sir, why? What has happened?” “I can’t run like I did before.” And I said, “You’re not running?” “No, I am running. I’m just not able to do seven miles a day. I can do only four miles a day.” I’m like, whoa, that’s about 100% more than I do. 

Now, again, I’m bringing this as an extreme example. But for some of the oral agents, like the Olaparib trial, there were men in there literally late-’80s, early-’90s that were included in the clinical trials. Same thing goes for several of the other trials. 

I do think that functionality is important. So, if somebody comes to you so sick they are in a wheelchair, you really have to be very careful. And again, I’m just using kind of extremes. And so, you have to be careful by what you are able to do. And any time the doctor thinks the odds are going to be more harm than good, this is really where absolutely a situation where the physician needs to be careful about it, and the patient needs to understand it also. At the end of the day, it’s a shared decision. 


Before we close, Dr. Hussain, how do you feel about the future or prostate cancer research, and what would you like patients to know? 

Dr. Hussain:

First, let me say that I would love for the patients to know that they are a partner, a most critical partner in the process.  

That we need to continue the research and investment in research. It is research that will end up curing cancer. Wishful thinking will not do it. And patient volunteering, which I think is remarkable across all cancers. The business I’m in, the way that drug discovery and evolution often happen because patients volunteered. And without testing these new treatments and combinations, we will not be able to get better results.  

And I will tell you that, when I started my training, the median survival for patients with resistant prostate cancer was on the magnitude of about nine months. Now it is three years-plus. Now, you could argue, well, that’s not huge. But that is a huge change because, again, we’re picking up the cancers much earlier. And the patients who had, as I mentioned, metastatic disease, again, the longevity then at the time I was in training, but even afterwards, was give and take in the three years. And now we’re talking six-plus years. 

And so, there’s been tremendous progress. And really partnership with the patients and their families and supportive others is very critical, and investment in research. So, yes, advocate constantly for more investment in research. 


All sounds very promising, Dr. Hussain. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. 

Dr. Hussain:

My pleasure. And be well, all of you.  


Thank you. And thank you to all of our partners. If you would like to watch this webinar again, there will be a replay available soon. You’ll receive an email when it’s ready. And don’t forget to take the survey immediately following this webinar. It will help us as we plan future programs. To learn more about prostate cancer and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us. 

Notable News March 2021

While we’ve heard a lot about the vaccine for Covid-19, vaccines for cancer have been in development behind the scenes, and they show a lot of promise. Traditional treatments, like surgery, are still helpful as well, and early screenings are key to better survival rates. However, cancer survivors need to pay attention to their hearts, and young men need to be aware of any changes to their skin.

Melanoma is on the rise among younger men, and doctors aren’t quite sure why, reports menshealth.com. It is the fifth most common cancer for men and one of the top three among young adults. Research shows that young, non-Hispanic white men make up more than 60 percent of melanoma-related deaths. Doctors have some theories about why younger men are particularly at risk for melanoma, but the reasons aren’t entirely clear. One theory is that men could be biologically prone to developing melanoma because of their sex hormones. It’s thought that testosterone may cause melanoma to spread quickly and grow faster. Learn more here.

Cancer survivors have a higher risk of heart disease, reports pharmacytimes.com. A new study shows that 35 percent of Americans who have had cancer have an elevated risk of heart disease, compared to 23 percent of those who have never had cancer. Some of the treatments that cancer patients receive, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can affect cardiovascular health, and researchers hope that more attention will be paid to those risk factors. Read more here.

There are new lung cancer screening guidelines that increase the recommended number of people who get yearly CT scans for lung cancer, including more African Americans and women, reports nytimes.com. The new guidelines, which were previously established based on data for white males, reduce the age and smoking history requirements, and now include people, aged 50 to 80, who have smoked at least a pack a day for 20 years or more, and who still smoke or quit within the past 15 years. The goal is to detect lung cancer early in people who are at high risk due to smoking. By reducing the age and smoking history requirements for screening, more women and African Americans will likely benefit from the new guidelines as they tend to develop cancer earlier and from less tobacco exposure than white males. CT scans can reduce cancer death risk by 20 to 25 percent. Learn more here.

A Global Breast Cancer Initiative was introduced this month by the World Health Organization, says www.who.int. The initiative seeks to reduce global breast cancer mortality by 2.5 percent each year until 2040. Breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide. Survival rates have increased in high-income countries, but in low-income countries less progress has been made. To implement the initiative, global partners will use strategic programs that include health promotion, timely diagnosis, and comprehensive treatment and supportive care. Read more about the global initiative here.

Researchers have developed a vaccine that uses tumor cells in a patient to train the immune system to find and kill cancer, reports news.uchicago.edu. The vaccine is injected into the skin and has shown that it stopped melanoma tumor growth in mice. The vaccine is a new, and potentially safer and less expensive, way of using immunotherapy to treat cancers. It works as a therapeutic vaccine, activating the immune system to kill cancer cells. Researchers are planning to test the method on breast and colon cancers, as well as other types of cancers, and eventually plan clinical trials. Learn more here.

A Phase 1 trial is showing incredible promise for a brain tumor vaccine, reports newatlas.com. Research shows that the vaccine is safe and that it triggers an immune system response that slows tumor progression. The vaccine targets a gene mutation common in gliomas, which are a hard-to-treat type of brain cancer. The trial showed that 93 percent of patients had a positive response to the vaccine, and no tumor growth was seen in 82 percent of patients after three years. While the results are promising, researchers are cautious and say larger studies need to be done. A Phase 2 trial is being planned. Find more information here.

New treatments are exciting, but some traditional treatments might need more consideration in some cancers. Surgery, after chemotherapy, increases lifespan of pancreatic cancer patients, reports eurekalert.org. A new study shows that stage II pancreatic cancer patients who are treated with chemotherapy and then surgery to remove the cancerous area, live almost twice as long as patients treated only with chemotherapy. The data also shows that patients live longer even if the cancerous area isn’t completely removed. The study reveals that surgery is helpful in treating more pancreatic cancer patients than was previously believed. Learn more here.

A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease

It’s my great pleasure this month to interview Carolyn Thomas, journalist, blogger and heart health advocate. Her popular Heart Sisters blog was recently turned into a book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. As a heart attack survivor Carolyn is on a mission to educate women about their heart health.

Hi Carolyn, can you tell us a little more about why and how you decided to create your blog Heart Sisters?

C.T. I launched Heart Sisters in 2009 as a static 3-page site for local individuals and groups wanting to book my presentations about women’s heart health. I had no clue that anybody outside of my hometown of Victoria here on the west coast of Canada would ever read it.  At the time, I’d recently graduated from the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women with Heart Disease at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, and I was very busy sharing what I’d learned during my Mayo training at these local presentations. I called these weekly talks my “Pinot & Prevention” events (booked at least three months in advance!) A reviewer at the time described my talks as “part cardiology boot camp, and part stand-up comedy!” I felt overwhelmed by the response, and I was also a heart patient living with ongoing cardiac issues! But there clearly seemed to be growing public interest in this topic! I started the blog using a free WordPress template mostly to share info about how to book one of my talks so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the phone! A few months in, it struck me that perhaps I should add some meaningful value-added content too, covering some of the more popular questions women were asking me during my heart presentations.  And here we are now, eight years and over 700 blog articles later, with over 12 million views from 190 countries!

That’s impressive! What do you think are some of the benefits for patients who blog?   

C.T. I suspect that many patients who start a blog do so for its therapeutic value. I’ve seen you describe it as “writing to heal”. We’re trying to somehow make sense out of a life-altering diagnosis that makes no sense. It’s also been said that when something terrible happens, the only good that can come of it is if you’re able to make things better for others because of it. And I love the remarkable sense of community that can emerge over time between my blog readers and me, and (even better!) between each other!  When I wrote in 2015 about the birth of my first grandbaby (our darling Everly Rose), I was moved to tears by comments coming in from so many women I’d never met, who were so happy sharing in my own joy.

Not everyone is comfortable with the term “survivor” to describe their experience. I’m curious to know what you think. Is there a “survivor mentality and/or personality”?

C.T.  Sometimes people who are introducing me at a conference or at an after-dinner presentation ask if I mind being referred to as a “survivor”. Considering the alternative, I don’t mind at all. I did survive. I survived being misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home from Emergency. I survived what doctors still call the “widow maker” heart attack (notice they don’t call it the “WIDOWER maker” when it happens to women like me!)  I survived what many do not.  But I didn’t survive it because I thought positive thoughts or had a better attitude than those who didn’t survive what I did.

We hear about the Survivor mentality (good) when it’s typically contrasted with the Victim mentality (bad). This makes some sense when we’re talking about human resilience, but honestly, there are few things less motivating or inspirational to me than listening to some chirpy survivor brag about doing triathlons or climbing mountains despite having survived ______ (insert horrific medical diagnosis/procedure here) while everybody applauds his/her spunk and winning attitude. Nobody supports wallowing in self-pitying victimhood, but the distressing implication when believing in a survivor mentality is that if only those poor unfortunates who died of the same horrific diagnosis had somehow tried more, been braver, worked harder, thought happier thoughts, etc., well, they might still be alive today. Heart disease last year killed about six times more women than breast cancer did – and those women who died (some of whom were my friends from our Mayo class of 2008) are no less brave than those, like me, who have been lucky enough to survive. So far.

Do you see any commonality in the experience of surviving a heart attack when you read cancer survivorship blogs?

C.T. I can’t speak for all survivorship blogs, of course, but I can say that the sense of not being the only one feeling this way can be a huge relief when we read somebody else describe what we’ve been going through, too –  especially for those I like to call the ‘freshly-diagnosed”.  One of my blog readers left a comment, for example, that simply asked: “Oh my God! Are you ME?”  Another important theme is that many patients facing a catastrophic diagnosis – no matter what that diagnosis might be – are suffering a sudden and profound loss of self, complete with an awful sense that my old self, who I was and how I identified myself in this life, has somehow crumbled away, but leaving nothing in its place to replace it yet –  that stark Before Diagnosis and After Diagnosis difference. I once described it as being like taking a trip to a foreign country we never, ever wanted to visit.

I agree with you – that sense of not feeling so alone in our illness is powerful. Do you think that the reach of our blogs can extend further, perhaps even influence the practice of healthcare?

C.T. I sure hope so!  For example, I’m a person who likes evidence, so both my Heart Sisters blog articles and my book contain detailed medical journal references to support research that I mention. I think it’s one of the reasons that Johns Hopkins University Press first asked me in 2015 to write a book for them based on my blog articles. I’m not a physician, but I include hundreds of citations in my book so that the women who show these to their physicians can feel comfortable sharing science-based medicine – not woo-woo snake oil.

I also have a couple of pet peeves I love to write (and rant!) about:

  1. the shockingly low rates of doctor referrals of eligible heart patients to life-saving cardiac rehabilitation programs
  2. the alarming failure of our healthcare system to implement mandatory reporting of diagnostic error

My fondest hope is that if I keep ranting about these two areas, and quoting every emerging study that validates the rant, someday both of these appalling situations will be finally addressed.

But I must tell you that one striking example I’m aware of on how my blog has influenced medical practice is a comment I received from a senior American paramedic who teaches emergency medicine to trainees. When I wrote a blog article about how women heart patients are treated differently in the back of the ambulance en route to hospital compared to their male counterparts experiencing identical symptoms, he wrote to me: “Carolyn, this stops today. With me! No more!” adding that his teaching curriculum would be immediately changed to reflect the study findings I’d written about. Something I wrote hit home for this man, who happened to be in a position to influence the education of future care providers. Wow!

Wow that’s incredible. It makes me so happy to know that there are health professionals out there who are paying attention to what we have to say online. I would also hope that in reading patient blogs they would come to a better understanding of the psycho-social aspects of serious illness. Do you think health professionals often ignore those aspects of illness which lie outside of the physical?

Yes. Next question?

Seriously, some physicians (particularly specialists) seem to forget that there is a whole entire person attached to the organ they happen to be focused on. As cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes, founder of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic, once explained: “Cardiologists may not feel comfortable with touchy-feely stuff. They want to treat lipids and chest pain. And most are not trained to cope with mental health issues.” I wrote a lot about this reality in my book, starting with wishing that I’d know before hospital discharge that post-heart attack depression is not only common, but also temporary and treatable. Mental health researchers call this ‘situational depression’. But not one person in that hospital – no doctor, no nurse, no janitor – nobody had warned me about the emotional and psychological fallout of such a life-altering medical crisis. It was five long months later when I showed up at Mayo Clinic that I finally learned that up to 65% of women with heart disease experience debilitating mental health symptoms after hospital discharge, yet only 10% are appropriately identified and treated.

That’s a sobering statistic. I believe we need to address these issues right at the point of diagnosis. What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed with a serious illness?

C.W. That’s a frightening and surreal time for most of us. Let me quote my Alaska friend, Dr. Stephen Parker, who is both a cardiac psychologist and a survivor of multiple heart attacks himself, who says it beautifully when he talks about the “swirling emotions” that surround the freshly-diagnosed:

    • relief at survival
    • disbelief and anger that it happened
    • grief for everything that was and will be lost
    • gratitude to those who helped
    • extreme vulnerability in a previously safe world
    • fear of what the future might bring

So much depends on the diagnosis, the prognosis, the treatment plan, and the patient’s support community (if any). It can take a while for protective denial to wear thin so that we can begin to grasp, little by little, what is actually happening to us. It can feel like a roller coaster of ups and downs (mostly downs) in the early days. What I tell my own readers is this: your only job now is to become the world expert in your unique diagnosis. Knowledge truly is power, especially for women. And also – go outdoors. Spend as much time as you possibly can walking in nature. This won’t change your diagnosis at all, but you’ll be breathing fresh air and feeling the wind on your face.

We both share a low tolerance for certain metaphors used to describe illness. What are some of the metaphors you dislike the most? Do you think the language we choose to describe illness is important?

Thanks for asking about this. Language IS important!  In cardiology, for example, doctors talk blithely about the condition they call “heart failure” – as if they are utterly unaware how devastating those words can feel to a patient who hears them. Your heart is FAILING. Many  report that they feel unsure if they can even walk to the car after that. Doctors will also refer to patients who “failed” their treadmill stress test” or “failed the medication protocol”. Doctors use combat metaphors (“battling cancer” or “she’s a fighter”) which can make patients whose conditions decline feel like they’re clearly not fighting hard enough, or are somehow doing this wrong.

Do you think that patients sometimes don’t challenge their doctors because they fear they risk being labelled difficult? What advice would you give them and the healthcare professionals who treat them?

C.T. I believe this fear of being labelled a “difficult” patient is an overwhelming reality for far too many patients, and especially for women who have been socialized to be nice, to not make a fuss, to put the needs of others ahead of our own.  I like to quote landmark research published in the journal Health Affairs on this very subject.(1) This study was on how patients approach shared doctor-patient decision-making; the participants studied were wealthy, highly-educated residents of Palo Alto, the centre of Silicon Valley and home to the prestigious Stanford University. Yet the astonishing conclusion from researchers was the “fear of being categorized as ‘difficult’ prevents patients from participating more fully in their own health care.” Yes, even wealthy, educated, capable confident types!  And we are wise to avoid being seen as “difficult”. It turns out that another study last year suggested that diagnostic error rates actually go up if your doctor considers you to be “difficult”.(2)

How to get past this reluctance? I like to ask my Heart-Smart Women presentation audiences to guess what I would have done had it been my daughter or my sister or any other woman I love experiencing the same cardiac symptoms I was having? Like me, they agree that they’d be screaming blue murder to get the help this other person deserved, with no thought whatsoever of being labelled as “difficult”. We need to be as strong and as diligent about getting help for our own medical needs as we’d be if we were trying to get help for our loved ones.

Finally Carolyn, your blog has captured hearts and minds across the globe – and now it has been turned into a book! Do you have any advice for any of our readers who might like to turn their own blog into a book?

C.T. I’d never even dreamed of writing a book based on my blog – right up until I was approached in September of 2015 by the Executive Editor of Johns Hopkins University Press (JHUP – the oldest academic publisher in North America!) who asked me out of the blue if I’d consider writing a book with them based on my blog articles. One of the many follow-up conversations I had with her over the next few weeks included this question: “Why would anybody buy a book when they could get most of the content for free by visiting my blog?”  That’s a good question for bloggers to ask themselves about their own project. I know a number of bloggers who have self-published their own blog-turned-book. There are pros and cons of each option: self-publishing vs. being published by an established traditional publisher. One thing I felt strongly about was that, even though my book is based on excerpts from hundreds of my original blog articles, I needed a very clear 10-chapter table of contents outline that carefully outlined the specific focus of each unique chapter.

What you don’t want to see is a series of disjointed chunks of your blog that look like they’ve been lifted willy-nilly and then tossed together like yesterday’s salad. Prepare to write lots of new transition sentences/paragraphs that will seamlessly link otherwise separate excerpts. This is much harder than you’d imagine! Also, as another blogger-turned-author Alice Callahan told me about writing her own book based on her “Science of Mom” blog: Don’t lose the unique ‘voice’ that you use in your blog writing.

Thank you Carolyn for taking the time to share your experience with our readers. It’s been a pleasure to interview you and learn from your story.

About The Book

A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease by Carolyn Thomas is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. It’s available in paperback, hard cover and eBook formats. Readers can save 20% off the list price by using the code HTWN when ordering directly from JHUP: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/womans-guide-living-heart-disease


  • Authoritarian Physicians And Patients’ Fear Of Being Labeled ‘Difficult’ Among Key Obstacles To Shared Decision Making. Dominick L. Frosch et al. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0576 Health Affairs. May 2012; vol. 31 no. 5 1030-1038.
  • Do patients’ disruptive behaviours influence the accuracy of a doctor’s diagnosis? A randomised experiment. S. Mamede et al. BMJ Qual Saf doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2015-00410. Online March 7, 2016.