Who’s a survivor?  You are, if you are trying to get your life back after a diagnosis of prostate cancer.


            Survivor.  What does that word bring to mind?  (Besides, of course, the name of the rock band whose song, “Eye of the Tiger,” went double-platinum in 1982 and was the theme of “Rocky III.”)

            There are more prostate cancer survivors now than ever before.  More men are being cured of localized disease, and more men are living longer with advanced cancer than ever before.  This is great news!  It also means that, as men live longer after treatment for prostate cancer, they have new things to deal with – which brings us to the evolving area of cancer survivorship.

             Survivorship is basically the day-to-day effort to live your best life during or after treatment for localized cancer, or between and in the midst of treatments for more complicated disease.  It’s such a big part of cancer treatment now, in fact, that medical centers are devoting significant resources to it.  One of them is Dana Farber, where medical oncologist Alicia Morgans, M.D., will soon become the new Medical Director of Cancer Survivorship.

The criteria for survivorship used to be a lot more strict, she notes.  “The old-fashioned definition would say that patients living with cancer are not survivors” – that a true survivor could only be someone whose cancer has been cured.  That has changed.  “Now, anybody living after a diagnosis of cancer is a survivor and deserves to have the best quality of life possible.

Good news: for many men recovering from treatment or living with prostate cancer, help is available.  But it may be up to you to ask for it, if your doctor doesn’t address it specifically.

Note:  Here is where your spouse, partner, family or friends can help.  Those who love you may be aware of some things that you might not have noticed, and their insights can help your doctor take better care of you – if you say it’s okay for them to talk about it.

“Men are stoic, and may not feel comfortable admitting a weakness or vulnerability, or they may not have the words to describe what they’re going through,” says Morgans.  “Or, they may not perceive a problem, but their caregivers or loved ones may.  Raising their concerns – with the permission of the patient – to the doctor can be very helpful.”  This is especially true, she adds, in cases where the patient is experiencing “psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and may not recognize it.  Sometimes the caregiver can say, ‘You don’t realize it, but you’ve had a really short temper.’ Or, ‘You may not recognize it, but you’re sleeping all day, and you’re not eating.’Or, ‘Your cancer is controlled, but your behavior is very different, and you seem really down.’  We may not perceive these changes as being different or outside our norm, but if they’re empowered to speak (with your permission!), your caregiver or family members can really help reflect back to us more accurately what’s happening with you.”

While visiting the doctor, phone a friend!  If it’s not possible for a family member to be there at the appointment, no problem!  “We can often call or conference a loved one in,” with Zoom, FaceTime, or through the medical center.  There are also “electronic ways,” Morgans adds, for loved ones to communicate with the doctor.  You can write an email to the doctor, using the patient’s portal – or even your own.  “In many systems, caregivers can have an account that’s connected to the patient.  I have many patients whose spouse has an adjacent account.  Others just use the patient’s account.”

Be sure to identify yourself, that this is the patient’s daughter, spouse, or friend.  “Don’t represent yourself as the patient if you’re not the patient.”  This does happen, Morgans says.  “Sometimes wives will get on there as the patient, and you know it’s the wife: women tend to talk a lot more than men!  I’ll see a long description, and write back, ‘Is this John’s wife?’”  The information is still appreciated, she adds.

“If there’s something they think the doctor needs to know, and if they’re empowered by the patient to speak to us, the caregiver or spouse can intervene in a meaningful way.”

Sexual Health

Sexual health is “one of the most underrecognized issues” for prostate cancer patients and their partners.  One big reason why is that men just don’t want to talk about it, either because they keep hoping it will get better, or they just decide to be stoic and carry on.  “Even though we have a roadmap for how to address these issues after surgery or radiation, we often lack the support system,” says Morgans.  “There are way too few sexual health counselors specifically dedicated to helping men recovering from prostate cancer.”  And yet: “This is an area of high interest to many patients.  Sexual health affects their personal experience, their mood, energy, everything they do.”  It also affects the health of their partners.

Although this is the issue many men wish would just go away, what they need to do is just the opposite of hoping for the best:  be proactive.  If you had surgery and you haven’t already had this discussion with your urologist, find out what you can do for penile rehabilitation.  This may include pills such as Viagra, Cialis, or other PDE5 inhibitors; vacuum devices for stretching the penis to protect against scar tissue formation; in-office or at-home treatment with a small TENS unit to stimulate nerve regeneration and help with return of urinary control; penile injection; or a penile implant.

Don’t suffer in silence!  Don’t listen to anyone, yourself included, who thinks, “Your cancer has been cured. Just be happy with that.”  There are many steps you can take to recover your sexual health – but they won’t happen if you don’t ask for help.

Intimacy: This is not the same as sexual health, but men on ADT and their partners still need intimacy.  If your oncologist or medical center does not provide counseling in this area, ask for a referral to a sexual health counselor, and keep this in mind: you are not alone, whether you’re the patient or his partner.  There are thousands of couples dealing with this issue, as well.  Your doctor also may be able to recommend support groups, online and affiliated with local medical centers.

Fighting Back on ADT

ADT will try to affect your overall health, but here’s the good news:  you can fight back, Morgans.  Arm yourself with what it might do, and you will be better able to protect yourself against its tactics.  So here, in no particular order, are some of the things ADT might affect, and countermeasures you can take:

Bone health:  Prostate cancer can affect your bones, and so can ADT, in different ways.  Treating prostate cancer in the bones not only protects them, it can improve survival!  ADT raises your risk of osteoporosis – but not only is this treatable, it’s not a “done deal” that every man on ADT will develop it!  “Avoiding fractures is so important,” says Morgans.  “Men who have fragility fractures (due to osteoporosis) can lose their mobility and independence, and can have some major changes in their lives until those fractures are repaired.  If we simply follow the guidelines we already have on how to care for bone and prevent osteoporosis, we can improve those outcomes pretty dramatically.

A lot of the complications associated with ADT are absolutely things that we can address head on, try to prevent and to reverse; for instance, we have effective therapies to counteract bone thinning and lower the risk of fracture and complications from weak bones.  Many of the known side effects of ADT are not necessarily inevitable.”

Your risk of cardiovascular disease:  Here’s some good news:  A new drug, Orgovyx (relugolix), was approved in December 2020 by the FDA for men with advanced prostate cancer, based on results of the Phase 3 HERO study.  It lowers testosterone, but it works in a different way.  It’s also administered differently – a once-daily pill instead of a shot – and it has a significantly lower risk of major adverse cardiovascular events compared to Lupron (leuprolide).  If you have cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or pre-diabetes, if you’re overweight or if you smoke: heart disease needs to be on your radar, because ADT can make it worse. “Multiple studies have shown that men who have cardiovascular risk factors, particularly if they are not addressed, have higher rates of complications and even death on ADT,” says Morgans.  But treating these risk factors with diet, exercise, and medication if needed, can “improve overall survival and also quality of life.  When your body is healthier, you feel better.”

Note:  For just about every category on this list, exercise is one of the answers.  Men on ADT who exercise lower their risk of having cardiovascular and cognitive effects, developing insulin resistance, diabetes or pre-diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.  “All of these are modifiable risk factors,” says Morgans.

Depression:  “Depression is highly treatable,” says Morgans.  “This is important, because evidence suggests that men treated with ADT do have higher rates of depression than men who have prostate cancer but are not receiving ADT.”  But depression is underdiagnosed and undertreated in men on ADT, she adds, “perhaps because of reticence to ask for help, or a perceived stigma with mental illness,” or perhaps because it has crept up, and the patient hasn’t recognized that there’s a problem.  This is where friends, family and caregivers can help.  Depression can affect sleep, appetite, and memory, as well.

Cognitive changes:  ADT can cause cognitive decline and dementia.  However, this is more complicated than it sounds, Morgans notes.  For one thing, symptoms of depression can be mistaken for cognitive decline, and can improve with antidepressants and exercise.  For another, there are multiple forms of dementia, including vascular dementia.  “If that risk is increased because of ADT, then a medicine that reduces the risk of major adverse vascular events could feasibly lower the risk of dementia, as well,” although this remains to be proven in large-scale studies. In general, “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” and taking steps to improve your cardiovascular health will help protect your cognitive function, too.  “We also have strategies and mental tricks to help improve memory, and even medicines that may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.”  The key is to tell your doctor, and get further evaluation and help if needed.  “The choice of therapies may help, as well,” Morgans notes. “In multiple ongoing studies, some really interesting MRI data suggests that there may be differences in some distribution of blood flow in the brain” between androgen-targeted medicines, “including one study with darolutamide that has just launched.”

Hot flashes:  “At its basic level, ADT is lowering testosterone, which keeps men’s bodies functioning in a way they’re used to,” says Morgans.  “Just as we see when women go through menopause, there are widespread changes.  The constellation of symptoms is much broader than just the effects of ADT on the prostate cancer cells themselves.”

Among the most annoying and persistent – and undertreated – are hot flashes, which “can affect mood, sleep, and cognition,” says Morgans.  A novel approach on the horizon is a “wearable,” she adds.  It’s like an Apple watch, and can be linked to your phone.  The basic idea is to stimulate the autonomic nerves on the wrist, with a cool sensation.  “PCF is actively engaged in supporting work that can potentially improve quality of life and reduce hot flashes in men on ADT.  This is an area with much room for improvement, where attention is needed, and pharmacologic therapies aren’t as effective as we wish.”

For now, treatment with antidepressants may help; so can exercise.  Many men seek relief of symptoms with holistic treatments, including relaxation therapy, hypnosis, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acupuncture.

In addition to the book, I have written much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington


Just hear me out here.   Look:  I get it.  I come from a high-risk prostate cancer family, with five beloved men, including my husband, my dad, his dad, his grandfather, and my grandfather affected so far.  So you know I am not ever going to downplay the risk.  But enough!  Let’s stop being afraid of prostate cancer, or feeling that it’s just inevitable, or that there’s nothing you can do, or worse, pretending like the risk isn’t there.  Dismay doesn’t help; action does!



Why do I worry so much about black men and prostate cancer?  Well, I’ve met a lot of men with prostate cancer over the years, and two who hold permanent places in my heart are both black, both U.S. Veterans, the toughest guys you could ever meet (one, Les, was a USMC drill sergeant!), both devout in their faith, both devoted family men, both not screened for prostate cancer when they needed to be, starting at age 40.  Both were diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, and for both, cancer proved an enemy they couldn’t beat.  Their deaths devastated me.  Which is why you may think I’m crazy when I say this now:  Enough with the Dismay!  

Just hear me out.  Look:  I get it.  I come from a high-risk prostate cancer family, with five beloved men, including my husband, my dad, his dad, his grandfather, and my grandfather affected so far.  Two of them, my husband and my dad, got screened, were diagnosed early, and their cancer was cured.  I worry about our two sons, and you can believe I will be on them like the proverbial duck on a June bug to make sure they get screened!  So you know I am not ever going to downplay the risk.  But enough!  Let’s stop being afraid of prostate cancer, or feeling that it’s just inevitable, or that there’s nothing you can do, or worse, pretending like the risk isn’t there.  

Dismay doesn’t help; action does!  Yes, if you are of African descent, you are at higher risk of getting prostate cancer.  However, says physician-scientist Kosj Yamoah, M.D., Ph.D., radiation oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, who is also black, this news should not make you feel defeated. Instead, use this knowledge as advance warning!  Here, then, are some facts and encouraging advice about how you can take action:

Fact: If you’re a black man, you are more likely to get prostate cancer.  Your odds are one out of six, as opposed to one out of eight for men of other races. “In other words,” says Yamoah, “you are 74 percent more likely to get the disease than non-black men.”

How can you act on this?  “Get your first PSA by age 40.”  Note: you might have to ask your doctor for this, because many doctors don’t start prostate cancer screening until patients are in their mid-forties or even early fifties.  But research currently under way at Moffitt and elsewhere  suggests that for some black men, the early fifties may be too late to catch cancer while it is still confined to the prostateFor whatever reasons – genetic, environmental, or both – in black men, cancer can take less time to develop, and to spread outside the prostate.  So, if you are in your forties and have not been screened, Yamoah advises, ask your doctor for a PSA test and physical exam to check for prostate cancer.  “This is something you can do.  Make it happen.” 

Fact:  Treatments for localized prostate cancer work equally well in men of all races.  But that’s a limited-time offer; it only holds true if cancer is caught and treated early.  “If you or a loved one are African American and have prostate cancer, get treatment in a timely manner!” says Yamoah.  “Particularly for localized prostate cancer, whether you get surgery or radiation, if you are diagnosed and are treated adequately, know that African American men survive the disease exactly the same as non-black men – as long as these two caveats are met.  In equal-access environments, there is no difference in survival.”  However – perhaps because they may be younger, and otherwise may be feeling strong and healthy – if men delay treatment, because “I feel fine,” their cancer may become much more difficult to cure.  Ladies, if you are reading these words, know that you may have to do what my mom and I did with my dad, and what I did with my husband:  make him get regular screening.

Fact:  Unfortunately, treatment is variable.  Success of prostate cancer treatment is operator-dependent; so is quality of life. 

What does this mean for you?  “Seek the best care; don’t settle for less,” says Yamoah.  “It may require a bit of researching, but it makes a difference.”  Making the effort now to do your due diligence and find the best surgeon or radiation oncologist will pay off for years to come.  “In many states across the U.S., we have the best of the best in cancer care, but sometimes patients don’t seek the best care from centers with the appropriate expertise.”  Important note:  “It is also okay to get a second opinion if you are unsure about your treatment plan.”  Unfortunately, patient support groups and online chat rooms abound in stories of regret, anger, or sadness from patients who did not receive excellent care.  Yamoah tells his patients: “Look at it this way.  You would not want to take your car to a bad mechanic; you want to take your car to the best shop.  Why not your body?  It should be no different for health care.  We should be looking for the best.  Being your own advocate for getting the best care could change your life.”

That said, “Don’t fear treatment.”  For every possible side effect you might have, there are effective treatments.  You can get your life back.  The main thing is to be cancer-free.  Also, there are exciting new treatments being investigated now that don’t involve removing or treating the whole prostate; because of advances in imaging (MRI and PSMA-PET), it is now possible to get a pretty accurate idea of the extent of cancer.  On the horizon are treatments that may be able to cure prostate cancer when it is caught very early that have few to no side effects!  

You Need Personalized Care!

      Not only does prostate cancer tend to start at a younger age, and to be more aggressive, in some black men: it also tends to start in a different part of the prostate!  And not only is it often in a different part (the anterior region of the prostate, behind the urethra): it’s a part that’s more difficult to reach, and easier to miss, with a tiny biopsy needle.

What can you do about this?  Yamoah offers this advice: “An MRI and perhaps an additional blood or urine test, to discover or rule out aggressive cancer, will help even the playing field for black men – even for black men who are thought to have lower-risk disease, who may want to be on active surveillance.”  Is it truly safe to be on active surveillance?  Do you truly have low-risk disease – or was there more intermediate- or even high-risk disease hidden in the prostate that was not captured by the biopsy needle?  “Active surveillance works well – as long as patients are staged correctly.”

Here’s another difference:  Black men seem to respond better to some treatments than other men!  Research by Yamoah and colleagues has shown that Provenge (Sipuleucel-T), an immunotherapy drug currently approved for men with metastatic prostate cancer, is more effective in African American men than in other men.  Many black men “seem to have an immune microenvironment enriched for immunosuppressive biomarkers,” says Yamoah.  “Also, in these men, prostate cancer tumors may be a bit more sensitive to radiation.   We are seeing something in clinical trials: that medications like Provenge, and in some instances radiation and ADT, seem to benefit black men more than white men, as measured by longer disease-free intervals and longer survival.”  This suggests, he adds, that “maybe there is some component of a distinct biological subtype that favors certain treatments in black men; it’s a paradigm shift!”

Encouraging results from several studies now under way will help oncologists “tailor treatments appropriately with personalized medicine, based on individual patients’ biology.  This may be leading to a change in the way we see metastatic disease, that will convert it into a chronic disease.  This is all emerging; it’s all new stuff.”

What You Can Learn from Eastern European Jewish Women

“It might seem racist to say that cancer is different in black men than it is in other men,” says Yamoah.  “But that couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s not about race.  It’s about subtypes of cancer.  It is incorrect to say that you have a different type of cancer because of your skin color; the message is that, in order to treat all men equitably, we have to study all populations.”

What are subtypes?  They are specific varieties of a disease – based on differences in mutated genes, or differences in the immune system, or maybe even differences in the microbiome.  Each subtype may respond slightly differently to treatments and also to biomarker tests.  “We know that the cookie-cutter approach, treating all patients the same, does not work with prostate cancer,” says Yamoah.  “So, we need to fine-tune our diagnosis and treatment.”  Unfortunately, much of what scientists have learned about prostate cancer has come from studying predominantly white patient populations.  “We have not had enough African American participation in studies and in scientific exploration.”

How can you help change this?  “Get involved in research.  Become active participants in discoveries for treating prostate cancer.”  Particularly, different biomarkers may work better in black men.  “Whether it’s helping to determine the polygenic risk score – are you at risk, or do you have a family member at risk – or whether it’s helping to find out through biomarker discovery what subtype of prostate cancer you have, and how best to treat that, we could really use your help.”  Many academic medical centers have “biobanks,” collections of patients’ blood, biopsy and tissue samples that can be used for research.  If your doctor asks you to participate, consider saying yes.

Consider the case of Ashkenazi Jewish women – descendants of a very small group of about 350 people who lived in Eastern Europe about 700 years ago.  Around one in 40 people with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry has a mutation in the BRCA gene, which is linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and also other cancers, including prostate cancer.  “Through studying a sub-population, we discovered that gene,” says Yamoah.  But the implications of this gene are widespread:  “Recently, BRCA mutations have been linked to triple-negative breast cancer, which is more predominant among African women.  If we hadn’t studied it in the Ashkenazi population, we never would have identified it.  Now it has become a biomarker,” and scientists have identified a class of drugs – PARP inhibitors – that work well in cancers with this genetic mutation, including prostate cancer.  “It is no different from studying black men.  What we learn from identifying subtypes is going to benefit the globe.”  The message is “not treating you different; it’s treating you right.”

Each of us has a certain predisposition to disease, Yamoah adds.  “For example, some people smoke for 30 years and never get lung cancer.  Others smoke for 10 years and get it.  We all have a different threshold, based on our genetic predisposition.”  Prostate cancer develops because a gene is mutated.  “regardless of how it occurred,” whether through decades of eating a bad diet (environmental factors), or through inheriting a bad gene (direct genetic predisposition).

The idea of “one size fits all” medicine sounds nice and egalitarian, but in reality, one size does not fit all.  Take, for example, tattoos used in radiation oncology to help pinpoint the areas of treatment.  “We had some patients come through, and the technicians called me into the clinic and said, ‘We can’t find the spot; we can’t tell where the tattoo is.’  I said, ‘That’s because the ink in these localization tattoos was developed for the lighter skin and not for the darker skin!”  Yamoah found a company that has developed fluorescent tattoos (which show up on any skin color), to be available for his patients with dark skin.  “We have made a lot of our discoveries in prostate cancer only looking at one patient population,” but that is changing.  “We are now in an era of moving towards more personalized care, regardless of race.”

Another way you can help is to become an advocate.  “If you are a black man and you don’t have prostate cancer, you have a voice.  You have a sphere of influence; use your influence to encourage others to take heed,” to get tested starting at age 40, and to get prompt treatment from the best doctors you can find.  “If you’ve had prostate cancer and you’re a survivor, please be an advocate.  We need your voice.  Whether you have it or whether you don’t, please help change prostate cancer for this population!”

How Diet, Exercise, and Lifestyle Can Help Lower Your Risk of Fatal Prostate Cancer

If you are overweight, if you smoke, are sedentary, or if you eat a high-fat, high-carb, low-vegetable diet, you are doing prostate cancer a favor:  you’re making sure it has a very hospitable environment.

“Cancer is also a chronic disease,” explains Yamoah.  “Men with prostate cancer who also have high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, and coronary disease – many American men of all races who are affected by one or more of these conditions – do worse with their prostate cancer.  If your body mass index (BMI) is high, if you have cardiovascular disease or diabetes, these are conditions that can be made worse by androgen deprivation therapy (ADT).  If we have a man who might benefit from ADT, but who has chronic conditions that are detrimental to his overall well-being, we may have to give suboptimal care to decrease the risk of severe side effects because of these co-morbid conditions.”

What can you do about it?  Exercise has so many beneficial effects on men with prostate cancer, that it might as well be considered a medicine.  “The most effective  avenue for combating the side effects of ADT is exercise,” says Yamoah.  Similarly, “if you are being treated for localized cancer, if you follow a few simple guidelines for wellness, you are going to do better, recover sooner, and have fewer side effects.”

Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean vigorous activity.  Just walking is a great start!  You don’t have to pump serious iron, either; even light weights can help strengthen your muscles and protect your bone density.

If you smoke, there’s never been a better time or reason to quit.  Men who quit smoking immediately begin to lower their risk of dying of prostate cancer.  For more, see this discussion.

Look for foods that fight inflammation and that help prevent insulin resistance – both of which can make cancer grow faster.  Caloric restriction – eating fewer calories a day – is also proving to help slow prostate cancer.

“We wish we had medicine to prescribe that had as many beneficial effects as exercise, weight loss, not smoking, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet,” says medical oncologist and molecular biologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation.  “What’s good for the heart is good for fighting prostate cancer.  What’s good for the blood pressure is good for fighting prostate cancer.  It’s all connected.”

Finally, one easy-to-fix problem that is common in black men is not getting enough Vitamin D.  “Most black men are Vitamin D-deficient,” says Yamoah, “especially in the U.S.”  Just spending time outside in the sunshine may not be enough, he adds.  But good news:  an inexpensive, over-the-counter supplement can restore your body’s Vitamin D levels.  Note:  2000 IU is the recommended safe dose of Vitamin D.  It’s not a case of, “if some is good, mega doses are better,” because you can get too much.  Just stick with 2000 IU per day.  What does vitamin D do?  “It’s like flame retardant on cancer,” says Simons.  “It helps cool the inflammatory environment that cancer loves so well.”

In addition to the book, I have written much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington







Imagine looking at a very young Ian McKellen, the knighted British actor, and thinking, “Half a century from now, if they ever film the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he could be the best Gandalf ever!”

That kind of vision is rare – but scientist Neil Bander, M.D., has it.  Nearly three decades ago, Bander, now Director of Urological Oncology Research at Weill Cornell, saw the potential of a newly discovered molecule called PSMA to be used in two ways:  for imaging and also for precisely targeted treatment of prostate cancer.  Over the last few years, both aspects of his vision have been coming true – in clinical trials and newly in practice in the U.S., and in practice in Europe, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere – for a growing number of men with prostate cancer.

You’re going to be hearing a lot more about PSMA, a protein that sits on the surface of 95 percent of prostate cancer cells, and about strategies for targeting it.  One of the most promising tactics involves an antibody developed by Bander and colleagues, and it is no exaggeration to say that without funding from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF, which has invested $28 million into PSMA-targeting research over the last nearly 30 years), the antibody wouldn’t be nearly as far along as it is today.   Briefly, here’s how it came to be:

The late 1980s-early 1990s saw the dawn of monoclonal antibodies, lab-developed clones of B cells that make antibodies designed to zero in on one specific target, like molecular homing pigeons.  Scientists studying cancer were using this technology like gangbusters, “trying to find tumor-specific antigens on cancer cells that could be a way to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells at the molecular level,” says Bander.  (An antigen is a foreign substance, like a toxin, bacteria, or cancer; when the body detects it, the immune system makes a very specific antibody to identify and kill this intruder.)  The hope, if they could find a way to target just cancer, and not normal cells, was to develop more precise treatment – unlike systemic chemotherapy, which takes a toll on the rest of the body.

In 1987, a urologist named Gerald Murphy, who directed the Roswell Park Memorial Institute for cancer research and treatment – and who developed the original PSA test –made a monoclonal antibody, called 7E-11. “Not much happened with that antibody until 1993, when a group at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, headed by Skip Heston, used Murphy’s antibody as a way to clone the gene for the antigen that was detected by the antibody,” says Bander.  “When they cloned the gene, their analysis indicated that it was very specific for prostate cancer.  They also found it was actually present in the cell membrane of prostate cancer cells,” and called it PSMA, for prostate-specific membrane antigen.

Soon afterward, Bander received PCF funding to develop antibodies that were specific to prostate cancer cells.  He studied 7E-11, and realized that “if you were looking to target PSMA, this antibody had a significant flaw:  it binds to a part of the PSMA protein that is inside the cell membrane, a site that antibodies can’t readily reach.  In fact, the 7E-11 antibody could only bind to dead prostate cancer cells.   But fortunately, PSMA spans the cell membrane; a short region of it is inside the cell, another region traverses the membrane, and the largest part of the molecule is outside the cell.  Because the antibody is administered through the bloodstream, he notes, “the only thing it sees is what’s on the outside of the cell.  We set out to make a series of antibodies to the part of the molecule that’s on the outside.  A few other groups, including Skip Heston’s group, also set out to do the same thing.  We happened to get there first.”

In 1997, Bander and colleagues published in Cancer Research their development of four antibodies, the first antibodies that could stick to the part of PSMA on the outside of the cell, and the first antibodies that could attach to living prostate cancer cells.  Their most promising antibody was called J591.  Over the next few years, “we did a pretty thorough analysis of these antibodies – where they bound on PSMA and how specific they were for prostate cancer cells vs. normal tissues.”  Then, “because our goal from the outset was to develop this into a therapeutic,” they “humanized” it, genetically re-engineering it from a mouse-derived antibody into a sequence that the human body would not see as a foreign protein.

Bander and colleagues also spent years “really trying to understand more about PSMA, how good a target it was.  They learned that PSMA was very highly overexpressed in cancer; that although normal prostate cells are PSMA-positive, prostate cancer cells are PSMA-loaded.  “We also found that as prostate cancer cells get more aggressive and are more likely to kill a patient, they have more and more PSMA on them.  The more dangerous the prostate cancer is, generally speaking, the more PSMA there is.”

And, they found, the amount of PSMA on the cell surface is affected by male hormones (androgens).  In fact, “when you put a patient on hormonal therapy (androgen deprivation therapy, ADT) you actually upregulate the amount of PSMA on the cell surface by five- to ten-fold.”  The result is “enormous amounts of PSMA sitting on the surface of prostate cancer cells.”  So in effect, ADT, the mainstay of treatment for advanced prostate cancer, makes the bullseye on the cancer cell bigger:  on a tiny scale, from the size of a golf ball to that of a three-foot-wide crater!

But wait!  There’s more!  Bander’s team looked at other types of cancers, and found that the blood supply in almost every other type of solid tumor was PSMA-positive!   For example, a kidney tumor itself does not make PSMA – but its blood supply sure does.  In fact, “the blood supply is pretty strongly PSMA-positive.  We were surprised by this,” but the finding was independently noted by the Heston group.  “We did not and still do not understand why that is the case, but this means a PSMA-targeted drug is potentially useful not just in prostate cancer, but in other types of cancer, where the approach could be to basically eliminate the blood supply to the tumor.  We’ve done some clinical trials to show that this is a real possibility.”

One more early finding, something “we didn’t anticipate,” says Bander:  “When you bind the antibody to PSMA on a living prostate cancer cell, that cell swallows the PSMA and whatever’s attached to it!”  Like a fish gulping a fat worm with a hook, the cancer cell takes in the PSMA antibody and the cancer-killing payload.  This discovery, he continues, “opened up the door to develop antibody drug conjugates: you put a very potent drug on the antibody, direct it specifically to the prostate cancer cells, and the prostate cancer cell swallows up the drug, whereas PSMA-negative cells don’t.  This was, in effect, a door opening to developing chemotherapeutic agents that are only taken up by the cancer cells.”

The door keeps opening wider.  “If you look at PubMed today,” says medical oncologist and molecular biologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of PCF, “there are now 3,707 research papers on PSMA discoveries.  That’s a paradigm-changing impact.”

Coming up soon: we’ve talked all around the subject of killing prostate cancer by targeting PSMA.  Now how, exactly, does that work?

In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington

Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with high-risk prostate cancer.   Maybe you have already been treated for prostate cancer, but your PSA is starting to creep back up, which means that the treatment didn’t get all of the cancer – but maybe it’s just right there in the prostate area, easily targetable with radiation.  Or maybe it’s just in one lymph node, or it’s in a transition state called oligometastasis: not widespread, but in just a few isolated spots outside the prostate.  In other words, maybe the cancer can still be cured – if you can just find it.

This is a problem nobody wants, but the good news is that there’s never been a better time to have it:  because now your doctor has a way to see exactly where the cancer is. 

It’s called PSMA-PET imaging, and it works kind of like a heat-seeking missile.  A radioactive tracer that lights up in a PET scan is molecularly engineered to find one very specific target:  PSMA (prostate-specific membrane antigen), a protein that lives in high concentrations on the surface of most prostate cancer cells.  Because the tracer is injected systemically, it can shine a virtual spotlight on whatever it tags – even tiny bits of prostate cancer as small as a grain of rice – anywhere in the body.  Several of these tracers have been studied, and one, called 68Ga-PSMA-11was recently FDA-approved for limited use at two hospitals in California: USLA and UCSF.  Another agent called 18F-DCFPyL (PyL, trade name  PYLARIFY®), developed at Johns Hopkins by a team led by Martin G. Pomper, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, is the latest to receive FDA approval and will be more widely available.

Pyl has proven itself in two important clinical trials:  CONDOR, published in Clinical Cancer Research, and OSPREY; published in the Journal of Urology.  In the OSPREY trial, PyL PET/CT was tested in two groups of patients: men just diagnosed with high-risk, locally advanced prostate cancer who were set to undergo radical prostatectomy with pelvic lymphadenectomy, and men with metastatic or recurrent cancer.  In the first group, the ability of PyL to detect metastases in the pelvic lymph nodes or beyond was determined, and in the second group, PyL was used to detect distant metastases.

In the CONDOR study, men with a rising PSA after treatment for prostate cancer with surgery, radiation, or cryotherapy, who had no visible cancer on standard imaging were scanned with PyL PET/CT, which accomplished what researchers hoped it would: “PyL successfully localized sites of disease in 85 percent of men with biochemical recurrence,” says Pomper, “even men with low PSA levels.  It detected disease in most men with biochemical recurrence presenting with negative or equivocal conventional (bone scan plus CT) imaging, and led to changes in management in the majority of patients.”

For many doctors and patients, this new FDA approval of PyL can’t come soon enough, says Pomper.  “I’ve had patients for years asking me when we are going to be able to use this.  It’s proven very difficult, and taken a long time, but we are finally there.”

In 1996, Pomper was the first to figure out how to engineer a small-molecule, harmless radioactive tracer to PSMA, and his team went on to test the first PSMA-targeted PET agent in a clinical trial.  This he refined into PyL, a more sensitive and specific second-generation agent that provides sharper images.  “With standard imaging (bone scans and CT), we may suspect there is cancer outside the prostate area, but we often just can’t see it in its earliest stages.  Standard imaging is not good enough for detecting and characterizing disease in men with biochemically recurrent prostate cancer, particularly in men with a low PSA (less than 2).  But 95 percent of prostate cancer has PSMA.”  And as Johns Hopkins radiation oncologist Phuoc Tran, M.D., Ph.D., and others are showing in clinical trials of oligometastasis, very small, isolated bits of prostate cancer are now being considered treatable – and possibly curable – targets.  

How is PyL different from 68Ga-PSMA-11?  Both are very good.  PyL may provide clearer images, but the main difference is that 68Ga-PSMA-11 requires special equipment to make, has a short half-life, and must made in small batches on site in the hospital.  18F-DCFPyL has a longer half-life, and can be made in a factory and shipped to any medical center able to perform PET imaging, so it will be widely available.  Although this is a radioactive compound, it is well-tolerated, says Pomper.  “It has no pharmacological effect, it’s given in trace doses.  It just binds to PSMA and goes away; it doesn’t do anything else to your body.”

PSMA-Targeting Can Kill Cancer, Too!

But wait!  This is not all that PSMA-targeting can do!  Think of molecular LEGOS:  Instead of attaching the tracer molecule that can “see” prostate cancer, a different chemical brick can be attached that can kill cancer.  In Europe and Australia, and in international clinical trials, PSMA-targeting radionuclides, such as 177Lu-PSMA-617, are being used to target and kill cancer in just those tiny outposts, leaving nearby cells undamaged.  This is killing prostate cancer cells at the level of hand-to-hand combat, and it is a bright spot on the horizon as a treatment option for men with metastatic prostate cancer. 

What about the cancer cells that don’t make PSMA?  This, too, is on the horizon, but Pomper is developing new molecules and therapies to target “PSMA-invisible” forms of prostate cancer.  “It took a long time, but now we’re seeing many exciting offshoots of our work in other forms of cancer, as well.  Some pretty amazing things are happening.”

In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington







A full-on assault of high-risk prostate cancer with intensive neoadjuvant hormonal therapy before surgery marks a huge shift in medical thinking.  Instead of doing things in a well-ordered sequence, oncologists like UCSD’s Rana McKay are launching many weapons earlier than ever, when cancer is less prepared for battle, and they’re going for a cure.

Why the No-Holds-Barred Approach Now?

Which scenario would you prefer:  “I’ve got high-risk prostate cancer.  I sure hope it doesn’t come back after surgery or radiation!  Fingers crossed!  My doctor and I are really hoping for the best!” or,

“I’ve got high-risk prostate cancer that has a chance of coming back after initial treatment.  So, my doctor is going after it relentlessly, like Inspector Javert hunting Jean Valjean in Les Mis.

High-risk prostate cancer is formidable: it will spread if not treated and is more likely to recur after initial treatment.  That’s why doctors like Rana McKay, M.D., medical oncologist and PCF-funded Young Investigator at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) are now throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at high-risk prostate cancer as soon as it is diagnosed.

This marks a huge shift in medical thinking.  Advanced prostate cancer treatment in the past has been like a methodical series of “if: then” statements in math, like, “If A, then B,” or “C if and only if B.”  If cancer spreads beyond the prostate, then the traditional next step has been androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), shutting down testosterone and other male hormones that drive prostate cancer’s growth.  If the cancer becomes resistant to ADT, then other medications are added: chemotherapy and/or androgen receptor (AR)-targeting drugs (also called androgen-directed therapies, or AR-signaling inhibitors).

Over the last few years, doctors have been compressing this time frame, giving these AR-targeting drugs at the time that ADT is initiated – based on studies such as STAMPEDE, LATITUDE, suggesting that the cancer, which evolves and mutates as it spreads, is more vulnerable to treatment sooner rather than later.   Although these treatments can extend survival, they are not a cure.

What’s different about this new, full-on, kitchen-sink approach?  First, a high-intensity burst of hormonal suppression (ADT plus an androgen-directed drug, such as enzalutamide or abiraterone) is finite, given as neoadjuvant therapy for a few months before surgery and for up to a year afterward.  Then it’s over, and within a year, testosterone comes back.

Second:  “We are going for a cure,” says McKay.  This is worth repeating:  Going for a cure!

Early results of exciting clinical trials, with more on the way, are highly encouraging.  One Phase II trial still in progress, led at UCSD by McKay in collaboration with Mary-Ellen Taplin, M.D., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, grew out of a 2014 PCF Challenge Award study, led by Taplin.  The investigators tested two combinations of drugs given for six months before surgery:  abiraterone and prednisone plus leuprolide (Lupron), vs. abiraterone and prednisone, Lupron, and apalutamide.  After surgery, “men were randomized to continue therapy for one year, or simply to be monitored.”  The initial results of this trial were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in 2020.

“We showed that about one out of five men who received intensive hormonal therapy up front demonstrated very residual amounts of tumor, or no tumor at all, in their prostatectomy specimen” when the surgically-removed tumor was thoroughly examined by a pathologist under the microscope.   This “pathologic response,” seen in the surgically removed tissue, “hasn’t yet been proven in prostate cancer to be associated with long-term outcome,” notes McKay.  “But in several other tumor types – breast, bladder, rectal cancer, and others – evidence demonstrates that the pathologic response is associated with overall survival.”  In follow-up data from this and two other neoadjuvant studies, recently published in the Journal of Urology, McKay and colleagues showed that “of those patients who had no tumor or very little tumor left behind in their prostate, the rate of recurrence (the average follow-up time so far is 3.6 years)  was significantly lower.  In our cohort of 117 patients, only two patients who had a pathologic response and minimally residual disease had a recurrence, and no man died of prostate cancer.  Our hope is that we will develop data to prove that a pathologic response is associated with long-term outcomes in prostate cancer.”

 In Some Responders at Prostatectomy, Cancer’s Already Dead!

Over time, prostate cancer acquires genomic alterations that help it to be more aggressive.  Each tiny mutation gives the cancer extra protection, maybe starting out with the genetic equivalent of a bullet-proof vest or stronger helmet, then becoming much more sophisticated – imagine a fighter jet deploying decoy flares or chaff as missile countermeasures.

Is it more vulnerable, and easier to kill, early on?  McKay and colleagues believe the answer is yes, and they’re testing this idea in several clinical trials.  One phase II study at UCSD still in progress, in collaboration with Taplin, involved 119 men with “unfavorable intermediate or high-risk disease.  “More than 90 percent of the patients had high-risk disease, and all of them, from the get-go, had very aggressive tumors,” says McKay.  “Over one-third of patients had Gleason 9 or 10 disease, and about 60 percent of patients had stage 3 cancer,” that had spread slightly beyond the prostate but with no evidence of distant metastases.  Men in the trial received either neoadjuvant abiraterone and prednisone plus leuprolide (Lupron), vs. abiraterone and prednisone, Lupron, and apalutamide.

One major reason why McKay and colleagues are testing this approach with surgery rather than radiation is to study the pathologic response: looking at how much residual tumor is present in the surgical specimen that has been removed after treatment.  Have they seen any changes?  Not in all men, but in about 20 percent, there’s a remarkable change:  “The primary tumor was dead and necrotic.”  The pathologists “looked at every little sliver of the prostate,” and found that these exceptional responders had either “less than 5 mm of tumor left behind, or no tumor left behind.”

Just think about that for a minute:  the surgeon removes the prostate, gives the tissue to the pathologist, who starts looking at it under the microscope and sees only corpses of cancer cells!

One patient who participated in this study is Pat Sheffler, who was diagnosed at age 53 with stage 3 prostate cancer and a PSA of 37.  He received abiraterone and prednisone, Lupron, and apalutamide for six months before prostatectomy, and started to see results right away.  In monthly blood tests before his surgery, his PSA levels dropped:  “34, 27, 21, 10, 4, 2, and 0.2.”  At surgery, he had “very minimal remaining tumor,” says McKay.  Then he underwent one more year of hormone therapy after surgery.  Two months after he stopped taking the trial medications, not only was his PSA undetectable, but his testosterone levels were coming back to normal.  “My hope for Pat is that he’s cured, that he can go on just being an amazing dad, husband, and advocate for prostate cancer awareness.”

In another phase II study led by Taplin, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, McKay and colleagues at UCSD, Dana-Farber, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Washington reported a complete pathologic response (no remaining live cancer cells in the prostate) or minimal residual disease in 30 percent of patients treated with neoadjuvant enzalutamide, Lupron, abiraterone and prednisone before prostatectomy.

But what about the men who were not exceptional responders to big-gun hormone therapy?  The scientists have identified some key genetic changes in men who were non-responders, and they have some ideas about how to help these men, as well.

In several clinical trials, including this one, an intense blast of neoadjuvant androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) and androgen-directed treatment (drugs such as abiraterone and enzalutamide) has shown promising results in some men – but not all men.  Why is this?

McKay, Taplin, and colleagues have found an explanation:  Men who have not responded (who had a significant amount of tumor remaining after neoaduvant treatment) in these clinical trials have certain genetic differences in their prostate cancerloss of PTEN (a tumor suppressor gene, which is knocked out in as many as 70 percent of men with prostate cancer) or alterations in ERG (an oncogene that fuses with another gene, called TMPRSS2, in as many as half of all men with prostate cancer).

“Very few of the men who responded had PTEN loss,” says McKay, “and ERG positivity was also associated with lack of response.”  But these men also seem to have something else that might render AR-blocking drugs unhelpful: lower AR expression, compared to other men.  Basically, if a tumor does not seem to have a lot of androgen receptor activity, then a medicine that targets these receptors won’t have much to work with.

This information is not discouraging, McKay hastens to add:  it’s helpful!  It has taught the scientists that “the responders have a certain tumor profile, and non-responders have a certain profile.  Similarly, responders had mutations in a gene called SPOP” (which is mutated in about 10 percent of primary prostate tumors).

Knowing this, McKay adds, could be an opportunity:  a springboard for additional or different therapy – perhaps neoadjuvant chemotherapy, for example.  Remember:  you’re still ahead of the game here.  You don’t have metastatic cancer, and many scientists believe that high-risk cancer, when it’s localized, is still vulnerable enough to be cured, if it’s hit hard with multiple weapons.

“This is an opportunity for us to develop and design a personalized treatment strategy for these men,” says McKay.  “It would be awesome if we could use somebody’s own genomics to help design the best treatment for him – similar to what’s being done in the breast cancer I-SPY trials, neoadjuvant studies with multiple treatment arms, some determined by biomarkers (specific genetic alterations that show up in a blood or tissue test).

Some men with high-risk prostate cancer might respond better to a PARP-inhibiting drug, such as olaparib and rucaparib.  This is the focus of another study that will be starting soon, McKay says.  “In men who have germline (inherited) alterations, such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, we hypothesize that giving a PARP inhibitor in a neoadjvant setting before prostatectomy might significantly improve pathologic response.  We are finalizing the protocol for NEPTUNE, a biomarker-focused neoadjuvant trial testing PARP inhibitors in localized prostate cancer.”

“It is really exciting to be part of this paradigm shift,” says McKay.  “We have the opportunity to improve outcomes for men with high-risk localized disease, and we’re in the midst of trying to prove that through well-organized, thoughtful clinical trials.

“At the end of the day, the question is, how can we help our patients live longer and live better?  That’s really the big driver.  The good thing about localized disease is that we can try to cure more men of prostate cancer – not just extend life for metastatic disease, but can we develop a pathway so they don’t ever develop metastatic disease, and so they can be cured?  That’s what we’re aiming to do.”  And, bonus:  after the big blast of intense hormonal treatment, most men get their testosterone back.  “Most patients actually recovered their testosterone fully within the first year of discontinuation of treatment.”

In addition to the book, I have written much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington









You have metastatic prostate cancer, and your doctor has said you’re doing all you can do.  How can you be sure?  This is a post that’s very close to my heart, because I have met many men over the years who hear this from their doctors and they just accept it.  Maybe you truly are doing all you can do.  But maybe you aren’t.  With the hope of fighting the spirit of complacency or worse, despair, that can overtake anyone with an illness so easily, I recently interviewed Duke oncologist Andrew Armstrong for the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF).  He proved to be a kindred spirit, who wants to encourage men not to give up.

“This is all we can do” is a phrase no cancer patient wants to hear, especially someone with metastatic disease.  Medical oncologist and PCF-funded investigator Andrew Armstrong, M.D., M.Sc., hears those six words a lot – from patients who have come to see him at Duke University’s Cancer Center, a comprehensive cancer and clinical trial center.  The patients are hoping their local doctor was wrong – that this is, in fact, not all that can be done.

And here’s some good news:  Often, there is something more, and the list of options is growing even as we speak.  “The FDA has approved many new therapies for advanced prostate cancer,” says Armstrong.  The challenge, he adds, is in knowing which of these might be helpful for you – and which are likely a waste of your time and money.

Why don’t all of these drugs work for everyone?  Because underneath the umbrella diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer are many factors that make the response to treatment different in each man.  Understanding whether or not you have some of these factors could not only save you thousands of dollars, but could point you away from treatment that is not going to work, and toward better, more promising options.

Do you need a “liquid biopsy?”  Armstrong and investigators at five centers recently completed the PROPHECY trial, funded by a Movember-PCF Global Challenge Award.  The study’s goal was to use a “liquid biopsy” – a blood test that can detect circulating tumor cells (CTCs) shed by prostate cancer – to evaluate a biomarker called AR-V7 as a predictor of response to androgen receptor-blocking drugs such as abiraterone (Zytiga) and enzalutamide (Xtandi).  AR-V7 is a variant androgen receptor that some men develop over time.  “AR-V7 does not show up when you’re first diagnosed with prostate cancer,” says Armstrong, “and it generally does not show up before you start hormonal therapy.  It only shows up when a patient has developed resistance to commonly used hormonal therapies like leuprolide or degarelix, and more commonly after he has been taking an androgen receptor pathway inhibitor like enzalutamide or abiraterone.”

The results of the PROPHECY study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and updated this past year in JCO-Precision Oncology, showed that AR-V7 is a “negative predictive biomarker” for response and outcomes to abiraterone or enzalutamide.  In other words, if a blood test shows that your cancer cells have detectable AR-V7, these drugs are not likely going to be helpful for you.  There are two blood tests for AR-V7:  one is an mRNA assay developed at, and offered by, Johns Hopkins, and the other is a more widely available CTC protein-based assay made by Epic Sciences.  Both tests are good, says Armstrong.  “It’s common practice,” he explains, “that if a man has been on enzalutamide and his cancer has progressed, to try another hormonal agent such as abiraterone, and vice versa.  But that strategy can lead to cross-resistance,” where neither drug is effective in this patient.  “These drugs are very expensive.”  Abiraterone is now available in a much less expensive generic form, but enzalutamide can cost more than $10,000 – per month!   That’s a lot of money, particularly if it’s not going to help you.

New Strategy:  Shotgun and Sniper Rifle! 

If you have AR-V7, what should you do instead?  Think shotgun – many pellets aimed at the disease – and sniper rifle – a highly focused, precision medicine approach.  “The answer is not to give up, but also not to give therapies that don’t work,” says Armstrong.  “Right now, drugs that are more effective would be chemotherapy: docetaxel and cabazitaxel, and radium-223,” a drug that mimics calcium – and, like calcium, gets absorbed into areas of bone with a lot of cell turnover, particularly areas where bone metastases are forming.”  Treating cancer in the bones not only improves quality of life, but has been shown to increase survival.   Another experimental way to treat areas of metastasis is with stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR, or SBRT), an intense, focused dose of radiation directly to a metastatic site.

Gene-targeted treatment is another option for some men.  “I look at AR-V7 as not the only blood test you’re going to do, but as part of a broader plan to find a therapy that fits the patient,” says Armstrong.  A small percentage of men have microsatellite unstable (MSI-high) prostate cancer – defects in one or more “spell-checker” genes involved in DNA mismatch repair.  This can be identified by tumor genomic sequencing biomarker tests.  “About 5 percent of men have microsatellite unstable prostate cancer, and those patients can do very well on immunotherapy such as pembrolizumab– and may even get complete remission of their cancer!”

Another small percentage of men – those who have a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene – may have an excellent response to a PARP inhibitor drug like olaparib or rucaparib and to off label platinum-based chemotherapy.   “Ongoing trials are exploring a range of combination approaches of both immune therapies and these targeted agents, as well.”

Armstrong is an investigator in clinical trials for still other treatments: newer immunotherapies, targeted molecular agents, newer AR degraders and other inhibitors of hormone signaling, and PSMA-targeted radionuclides, which can detect and attack areas of prostate cancer throughout the body.  “A negative test (such as a blood test finding AR-V7) doesn’t mean you close all doors.  It just means that other doors may open to you, and if those doors are more likely to help, those are the doors you should open.  But the first step is going to see an expert who can open those doors for you.” Look for a Comprehensive Cancer Center or a PCF-VA Center of Excellence (for Veterans).

And don’t forget:  you can help your body fight prostate cancer, as well!  As we’ve discussed previously, exercise can help minimize side effects and maximize the effectiveness of treatment.  The stress hormone, cortisol, plays a role in some forms of prostate cancer, and lowering stress can help slow down cancer’s growth.  Diet can do a lot:  foods that lower inflammation and insulin resistance can also slow cancer’s growth, and new evidence suggests that caloric restriction can decrease metastasis and increase overall survival.

To sum up:  Don’t accept complacency.  “I see it all the time,” says Armstrong, “and I’ve heard stories you wouldn’t believe,” of patients who have been told there is nothing more that can help them.  “Sometimes, if you just do some of these tests, you can find really actionable results.”  There is almost always something else you can do.  There are clinical trials under way and entirely new avenues of treatment, such as PSMA-targeting radionuclides, that offer tremendous promise.

“Andy Armstrong and his team are making tremendous strides towards precision medicine for men with advanced prostate cancer,” says medical oncologist and molecular biologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of PCF.  “If your doctor doesn’t mention new tests or experimental treatments – or even different uses for existing treatments that might be helpful for you, then it’s up to you to start this conversation.  And even during the pandemic, some clinical trials are still enrolling patients.”

It never hurts to ask.  Don’t give up! 

In addition to the book, I have written much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington




We’ve talked about PSMA-PET before, but now it has gotten FDA approval for use in imaging prostate cancer.  This is just the start: more approvals are expected.  PSMA-targeting is also being used in Europe and Australia, and in clinical trials in the U.S., as a means of treating prostate cancer, not just showing where it’s hiding in the body.  For the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), I recently interviewed Thomas Hope, M.D., part of a team of scientists at UCSF and UCLA whose PCF-funded research led to the FDA approval for PSMA-PET imaging.  The possibilities here are truly exciting:

“If we can see it on PSMA-PET, we can treat it, right?”

 “My PSA is no longer undetectable after surgery, but cancer didn’t show up on a PSMA-PET scan.  Do I still need radiation therapy?”

 “I’m at high risk of cancer recurrence.  A bone scan was negative, but the PSMA-PET scan shows a few spots of cancer outside the prostate.  Do I have metastatic prostate cancer?”

 These are just some of many new questions that men with prostate cancer and their doctors are starting to deal with after recent FDA approval of PSMA-PET, a new kind of scan that can show, for the first time, the needles in the haystack – tiny spots of prostate cancer hiding in the body that are too small to be picked up by standard imaging.

PSMA stands for prostate-specific membrane antigen, a molecule identified in the late 1980s that sits on the surface of prostate cancer cells.  Supported by many years of PCF funding, scientists have managed to link PSMA to radioactive tracers that can home in on this very specific molecule wherever it happens to be:  think of heat-seeking missiles locking onto a target.  Depending on the radioactive molecule linked to PSMA, it can either detect prostate cancer by shining a virtual spotlight on areas as small as a BB – the imaging technique the FDA has just approved – or detonate it with chemotherapy or tiny doses of radiation delivered by radionuclides at the cellular level.  In Europe and Australia, and in clinical trials in the U.S., PSMA-PET is being used to target and kill cancer in just those tiny outposts, leaving nearby cells unscathed.

“The PCF saw the potential of PSMA targeting way back in 1993,” says medical oncologist and molecular biologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of PCF.  “Over nearly 30 years, we have invested more than $26 million in research on PSMA, with the goal of finding cancer that has escaped the prostate when it is very early and at a very small volume, because we believe that the sooner we can target it, the sooner we will be able to treat it and change the course of metastatic prostate cancer.”

The particular PSMA-targeted contrast agent that just got approved – a remarkable achievement in itself, based on five years of research by investigators Thomas Hope, M.D., at the University of California-San Francisco, and Johannes Czernin, M.D., and Jeremie Calais, M.D., MSc., at the University of California-Los Angeles – is called 68Ga-PSMA-11.  (The “Ga” stands for gallium; other PSMA agents are in various stages of getting FDA approval.)  And this particular FDA approval, for now, is for use on a very small scale:  only in California, at UCSF and UCLA.  But it’s a start – and it marks an important milestone in prostate cancer detection and treatment.  

This FDA approval is for use of PSMA-PET imaging in two main groups of patients (for now), says Hope, who is Director of Molecular Therapy in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at UCSF: “in high-risk men before treatment with prostatectomy or radiation therapy, and in men who have already been treated for localized prostate cancer who have a rising PSA.

The strong collaboration among the PCF-funded scientists at UCLA and UCSF undoubtedly helped secure the FDA’s approval – itself a bit of a milestone.  “This is really unusual,” Hope notes.  “The FDA has never approved a drug at two manufacturing centers before, and both centers were approved on the same day.”

Achieving a PSMA-PET scan is more labor-intensive and expensive than patients might realize, Hope adds.  “We have to make the imaging agent ourselves in small batches,” a high-tech process that requires a gallium generator, and the solution can’t be stockpiled for long-term storage, because gallium has a half-life of a little more than an hour.  “For now, there is no commercially available PSMA-PET contrast agent,” but Hope believes this will change soon; two new drug applications for PSMA agents are under review by the FDA, and more are expected.

Note:  Many men won’t ever need PSMA-PET.  If you have a small amount of Gleason 6 prostate cancer and you are enrolled in active surveillance, or you were diagnosed with low- or intermediate-risk cancer that was treated with surgery or radiation and your PSA is undetectable, then PSMA-PET is probably not something you will need to consider.  But for other men – those with a rising PSA after treatment, for instance; men at high risk of cancer recurrence; or some men with metastatic prostate cancer – PSMA-PET can help determine what to do next.  As Hope says, “Now we know where it is.  The question then becomes, what’s the best way to treat it?”

Smarter Treatment

Having this extra insight shouldn’t be a scary prospect, he adds.  “It’s never bad to know; instead, what can we do with this knowledge?” One exciting thing is to treat men with oligometastasis, as oncologist Phuoc Tran, M.D., Ph.D., is doing at Johns Hopkins: and he’s going after a cure!   Another thing is to actually put the treatment where the cancer is, instead of where it is not.  Hope explains:  Many men who have a rising PSA after prostatectomy “get radiation therapy blindly to the prostate bed; 30 percent of those patients have a recurrence of cancer after about two years.  But with PSMA-PET, we know that about 30 percent of these patients have disease outside the radiation field.  Those are the patients who are recurring!  Now we can expand the radiation field to include known sites of cancer.  We assume the patient will benefit – we just haven’t proven it yet.  Do we not want to know where the disease is, and treat them blindly?” No! And this could be a game-changer for some men.

It’s also important to note that PSMA-PET is not the perfect crystal ball; it can’t detect areas of cancer that are really tiny.  Hope says that “some patients take a negative PSMA-PET to mean they don’t need any treatment,” and that’s not always correct.  “If you have biochemical recurrence (a rising PSA), and PSMA-PET doesn’t show any evidence of disease, the cancer is going to continue to progress.  Don’t think you don’t need treatment, particularly if you’re a candidate for salvage radiation therapy.”

These and other issues will become increasingly clear as PSMA-PET becomes incorporated into the standard of care.  As Hope notes, “It’s early days yet.”

In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington