Recently for the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), I interviewed two scientists who study lifestyle factors and their effect on prostate cancer:  Epidemiologist June Chan, Sc.D., of UCSF, and epidemiologist Lorelei Mucci, M.P.H., Sc.D., of Harvard.  In the last post, we talked about diet.  Now let’s look at exercise, and we’ll wrap up with some quick takes on various foods.

Here’s some good news:  By launching your proactive strike against prostate cancer, you’re not just helping your prostate (or helping to keep cancer from coming back, if your prostate is long gone):  You’re helping your heart, and you’re also helping to lower the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance.  Go, you!

A sedentary life is not good for the heart.  Diet is important, but it’s not the whole story here.  The research team of June Chan at UCSF has shown in multiple studies that exercise can help delay or prevent prostate cancer progression.  “Aerobic exercise after prostate cancer diagnosis may reduce the risk of prostate cancer recurrence or death by 60 percent.”  Chan’s earlier studies in this field, funded by PCF nearly a decade ago, showed a benefit to an hour of jogging six days a week – the level of exercise most of us can’t or don’t want to sustain.  But don’t get discouraged!  In more recent studies, she and colleagues have been looking at more doable levels of exercise – walking 30 minutes a day, or three or more hours a week, at a brisk pace (3 mph or faster).  The brisk pace is important:  One study found that men who walked three or more hours a week after diagnosis had a 57-percent lower risk of having prostate cancer recur than men who walked at a slower pace, for less than three hours a week.

“Just walking, not running!  Walking is so common.  During these Covid times, when we’re confined to small spaces, people might find it difficult to walk the way they would prefer,” says Chan.  “But I would say, just use it as a break to get fresh air – even if you’re just going up and down the same block.  Any little bit of walking, as opposed to sitting.  Movement is good for your overall bone health.  Don’t push yourself to injury; just get in a good habit.  It’s something you can do when you’re doing something else;” for example, “when I’m walking, often I’ll grab my phone, and use it as a chance to catch up with somebody.”  Don’t focus on the number of steps, or the time.  “If you’re always looking at your watch, you’re not enjoying the walk as much.”  And don’t overdo it:  “If you get injured, you might lose all interest in continuing.”

Note:  the key here is giving the cardiovascular system a good workout, not necessarily the act of walking itself.  So, apply this to your own needs:  if walking that much is not a good option for you, swimming and riding an exercise bike – whatever you are able to do – are good, too.  Studies by Chan and others have provided so much proof of the benefit of aerobic activity, in fact, that “we’re actually at the stage now that the updated Physical Activity Guidelines put out by the American College of Sports Medicine specifically note that exercise is recommended for men with prostate cancer to avoid the risk of dying from prostate cancer.  We’re really excited that we got to contribute to that work.”

What is it about exercise?  Chan and colleagues are still tapping the surface of all the ways exercise is good for the body.  “It improves energy metabolism, lowers inflammation and oxidative stress, helps boost immunity, and is beneficial for androgen signaling pathways.”  It is good for the heart and lungs, improves muscle strength and muscle mass, burns fat, lowers fatigue, anxiety, stress, and depression.  “It just improves your overall quality of life,” says Chan.  Bonus:  exercise also may help slow down prostate cancer’s growth.

Chan is investigating the underlying biological mechanisms for “why exercise has these benefits for prostate cancer and overall health.  Is it a systemic effect, or an anti-androgenic effect?  Is it acting on oxidative stress pathways?”  Her group is looking for insight from blood and tissue samples taken from men with prostate cancer before and after exercise interventions.  In another large, phase 3 clinical trial funded by Movember, Chan and epidemiologists Stacey Kenfield and Lorelei Mucci, with principal investigators Rob Newton and Fred Saad, are studying high-intensity exercise in men with metastatic prostate cancer, at more than a dozen sites worldwide. “It’s a two-year, tailored intervention, with both strength and aerobic components,” to see if exercise can help men with metastatic prostate cancer live longer and better.  What else lowers stress?  Meditation.  Stress may play a role in the growth of prostate cancer, so lowering stress is a strategy worth pursuing.

Speaking of strength training:  We all lose muscle mass as we get older.  Strength training (lifting weights or using resistance bands, and doing muscle-building exercises) fights this loss.  Strength training can be especially helpful in men on androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) for advanced prostate cancer, who are at higher risk of loss of muscle mass, osteoporosis, and also of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.  Note:  If you have advanced prostate cancer, check with your doctor to make sure strength training is safe, and also for some guidance about the weights you should be lifting.

Final note on exercise:  Start out slow.  “If you have not exercised regularly for a long time, consult with a physician or personal trainer, to get a program tailored to fit you,” says Chan.  “Start small, and go up by five- or ten-minute increments.  Then see if you can pick up the intensity.  Just make little changes.”

Look to the long haul:  “Thank goodness I ate that broccoli on Thursday.  Now I won’t get prostate cancer,” said no one ever.  It’s not just one good food choice, but many years of erring on the side of healthy.  The other side of that, however, is reassuring:  It’s not just one bad food choice, or being a couch potato last weekend, but many years of not eating things that can help your body fight prostate cancer, many years of not exercising.  “Diet is something you have to do every day,” says Chan.  So is exercise.  That said, “we’re all balancing so many things with food.  Food is part of our culture, taste, our family habits, celebrations.  I feel like the recommendations should just be like filters.”  In other words: many good decisions, over time, will help fight prostate cancer more than the occasional lapse will help promote it.

 

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down:  Quick Takes on Food

            I asked Lorelei Mucci for her expert opinion on some foods you may be wondering about for their cancer-fighting powers.  Here’s the rundown, in no particular order:

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO):  Yes!  More than 2 tablespoons a day.  Among other things, EVOO contains hydroxytyrosol, which scientists now recognize as a natural means of cancer chemoprevention.  It is a powerful antioxidant, and it has been shown to protect against cancer by slowing proliferation of tumor cells and increasing apoptosis – “suicide” – of cancer cells.

Tomatoes:  Yes!  Especially when cooked in, or drizzled with, olive oil, which helps you absorb a key component of tomatoes, lycopene.  “The prostate accumulates a lot of things,” including cholesterol.  “It accumulates lycopene.  When a man eats a diet high in lycopene, for some reason, lycopene levels in the prostate go up.  Lycopene makes sense biologically, because it does accumulate in the prostate.  It is an antioxidant.  This is one of the individual dietary components that seems pretty promising.”

Don’t like tomatoes?  Good news:  Lycopene is in watermelon and grapefruit, too!

Coffee:  “Coffee is looking more and more promising .  There are now a number of studies that suggest drinking coffee regularly, one to two cups a day, can help prevent aggressive forms of prostate cancer.  Some studies say three to four cups offer even more of a benefit, but there’s an initial benefit with one to two cups.  Coffee may also lower the risk of diabetes, liver cancer, and Parkinson’s disease.”

Tea:  Sure, what the heck.  There are far fewer studies on tea than on coffee, but tea has antioxidants.  People in Asia, which has less prostate cancer than the U.S., drink a lot of green tea.  “Tea lowers inflammation, but has not been shown to have an effect on insulin levels.”  However, and this is important:  it doesn’t seem to raise your risk of getting prostate cancer.

Note:  If you go to a fancy coffee shop and get a 1,500-calorie coffee with not only cream but whipped cream, and loads of sugar, or if you drink a super-sweet tea loaded with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, the effects on insulin resistance and risk of weight gain will probably cancel out the antioxidants.

Fish:  Yes.  “We published a meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies that looked at fish and prostate cancer death, and there was a pretty good benefit with regular consumption of fish.”  Particularly “dark-meat” fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and red snapper.

Devil’s advocate:  Are men healthier because they eat fish, or because if they choose fish, they’re not eating a big old ribeye steak cooked in butter?  Talk amongst yourselves, but fish is not nearly as pro-inflammatory as red meat.

Nuts:  Sure.  “There’s not much evidence one way or another with prostate cancer death, but they really seem to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality.”  Also, if you’re eating a handful of nuts as a snack, maybe you won’t be eating a bag of chips.  “In one of our studies,” says June Chan, “we observed that substituting 10 percent of calories from carbohydrates for calories from healthy, plant-based fat (nuts) was associated with a 29-percent lower risk of prostate cancer death, and a 26-percent lower risk of all-cause death.”

Pasta:  In moderation.  However, non-traditional pastas, made from cauliflower or chick peas, are another way to sneak in vegetables.  They may also help you manage your weight.  “Excess body weight, particularly the visceral fat around the abdomen, is associated with worse outcomes from prostate cancer.  Anything men can do to help reduce their weight – limiting bread and pasta, and increasing things like cauliflower pasta and vegetable intake – is beneficial.”

Charred meatTry to limit it.  When food is charred, it makes a chemical compound called PhIP, that is a known carcinogen.   Even worse: those beautiful (charred) grill marks combined with a pro-inflammatory food, like red or processed meat.

Soy:  sure.  “Consumption of soy is much higher in Asia, where the incidence of prostate cancer death is lower.  Soy is probably part of a strategy for maintaining healthy weight, and it’s a way of replacing red meat.  Does it lower prostate cancer death?  I don’t know that we have that evidence.”  Another complicating factor:  “Men who eat more healthy diets tend to get screened for prostate cancer.  If you get regular PSA testing, you’re five times more likely to get diagnosed with prostate cancer.”  And, if you get diagnosed early, you are more likely to get early treatment while the disease is confined to the prostate.  It’s like the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a domino effect.

Vitamin D:  Yes.  “There’s really promising data on vitamin D and prostate cancer mortality.”  One randomized trial, the VITAL study, showed “specifically in black men who have low levels of vitamin D, there’s a reduction in prostate cancer mortality.  Evidence from many studies suggests that this makes sense; there’s a lot of genetic data on inherited vitamin D pathways; this pathway seems to be very important for prostate cancer.”  Vitamin D is found in some foods, such as fatty fish and egg yolks, and your body makes vitamin D when you get out in the sunlight.  However, most people don’t have sufficient levels of vitamin D.  Thus, your best strategy is to take a vitamin D3 supplement:  2,000 IU daily.  It’s not a case of “more is better.”  2,000 IU is what you need.

Final thought on food:  In the words of the title song on Al Jarreau’s 1977 breakthrough album:  Look to the Rainbow.  Build your diet around an array of colorful, plant-based fruits and vegetables: green, red, yellow, orange and purple.  Those colors reflect the good nutrients in them.  Eat less red meat, and have restraint with sugar and carbs, and go for EVOO instead of butter.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part One:  Live Your Best Life!

What can you do to live your best life?  You might say, quite reasonably, that your best life does not include prostate cancer.  True.  But no matter where you are in your journey – prevention, treatment, recovery, or survivorship – what can you do to maximize the good, to help your physical and mental wellbeing?  There’s actually quite a lot!

For example: Exercise not only helps you lose weight; it helps fight depression, and it even can help slow down prostate cancer!  And eating the right diet – as opposed to eating a lot of junk and chemicals – can boost your spirits, your energy level, and just generally make you feel better.  Even better:  it can help lower inflammation and insulin, and this can help your body fight prostate cancer, and can help prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses.

There is growing evidence that the lifestyle choices that help prevent or fight other diseases – like, eating low sugar for diabetes, or exercising for your heart – can also help prevent or slow down prostate cancer.

Here are three basic principles:

What lowers inflammation helps fight prostate cancer.

What fights diabetes and insulin resistance helps fight prostate cancer.

What is good for the heart is good for the prostate.  We will cover all of this here and in part two.

Studying Diet is Hard

For the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), I interviewed two scientists who study lifestyle factors and their effect on prostate cancer:  Epidemiologist June Chan, Sc.D., of UCSF, and epidemiologist Lorelei Mucci, M.P.H., Sc.D., of Harvard.

Right off the bat, both of these experts note that studying food is hard, and the answer to staying healthier is not one single thing.  There is no dietary magic bullet, and if you see one advertised and choose to take it, do so with a huge proverbial grain of salt!  In many studies over the years, scientists have tried to isolate specific foods to see if they promote or prevent cancer – but they did it by asking people to recall what they ate over certain periods of time.  And most people don’t have ideal memories:  “Yes, I ate that fairly regularly.  No, I didn’t eat this – wait, maybe I did.”  See the difficulty?

Okay, so what if people keep a food journal?  That’s more helpful, although these kinds of studies, done right, take many years.  Even then, if you isolate certain foods that seem promising, you still don’t know exactly what’s happening!  Let’s say you are studying what people eat and you notice a trend in those who didn’t get cancer:  they eat apples (hypothetically).  What kind of apples?  Is it all apples, or just Granny Smiths?  Were they all grown in the same type of soil?  Were they cooked, or eaten raw?  Peeled or not?  Organic or not?  How many did people eat a day?

But wait!  Did these people even have an actual benefit from eating the apple – say, one they brought to work from home – or did they benefit from not eating a bag of cheese puffs or Twinkies from the vending machine instead?

And wait some more!  Do the people who benefited have genetic or molecular differences that make them more likely to be helped by apples?  Or… are people who eat apples also more likely to exercise and take better care of their health in general – so maybe it’s not even the apples but their whole lifestyle that made the difference, and we’re back to the drawing board!

This is why science around nutrition takes time.  Remember back in 2010 when coffee was bad?  And now, here we are in 2020 and coffee is good?  This stuff evolves.  The good news is, we’ve learned a lot.

Broad Strokes are Better

Scientists don’t have a Paint-by-Number approach to food science, with every single food accounted for.  But they are able to paint with broad, but definitive, strokes.

In our interviews, June Chan and Lorelei Mucci both cited work led by Harvard scientists Fred Tabung, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., and Edward Giovannucci, M.D., Sc.D., that look at the relationship between diet and inflammation.  In one, the scientists tracked inflammatory markers in the blood and whether inflammation was raised or lowered by what people ate, based on data from thousands of participants in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.  The key for us is the foods they found that reduce inflammation:  dark yellow vegetables (carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, etc.); leafy green vegetables (like spinach, broccoli, kale, etc.), coffee, and wine.  Beer (one bottle, glass, or can) was in this category, too.  So was tea, but its effect was not very strong.

The pro-inflammatory (bad) category, included processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, lunch meat, etc.), red meat, refined grains, high-energy beverages (with additives and sweeteners), and “other vegetables,” like potatoes and corn.  Interestingly, not all fish is equal:  canned tuna, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and “other” fish were more inflammatory than “dark-meat” fish like salmon or red snapper.

But if you love canned tuna, and if you love a baked potato or corn on the cob, don’t freak out:  remember, broad strokes!  The key seems to be to make sure you do eat the anti-inflammatory foods.  For example, the anti-inflammatory effects of leafy green vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, wine and coffee are more powerful than the very mild, pro-inflammatory effect of “other fish” or “other vegetables.”  If you feel that you just can’t give up meat entirely, that’s okay – just aim for smaller portions of meat, surrounded by anti-inflammatory vegetables.  Example:  instead of regular fries, try sweet potato fries.  They’re really good, and they fight inflammation!  You can have your burger, but still help counteract inflammation:  it’s a win-win!

So:  what about foods that are bad for diabetes and insulin resistanceTabung and Giovannucci led another study, also using data from the thousands of participants in the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, to assess the “insulinemic potential” of diet and lifestyle – basically, how foods and exercise affect blood sugar and insulin resistance, as measured by certain biomarkers in the blood.  Foods that did not raise blood sugar or insulin resistance included wine, coffee, whole fruit, high-fat dairy (whole milk, sour cream, a half-cup of ice cream, a slice of cheese, etc.), nuts, and leafy green vegetables.  Physical activity was also good for lowering insulin resistance and blood sugar.

What do the experts make of this?  Benjamin Fu, a postdoctoral fellow in Lorelei Mucci’s lab at Harvard has been looking at these two different dietary patterns: “a diet associated with hyperinsulinemia, and a hyper-inflammation diet.”  The two diets have some overlaps, but are not identical.  Neither is good for men worried about prostate cancer, Mucci says, “particularly the hyper-insulinemia (blood sugar-raising) diet, which is associated with a 60-percent risk of more advanced or fatal prostate cancers.”  Let’s just let that sink in for a second:  if you eat a lot of carbs and sugar and you get prostate cancer, you’re more likely to have a serious form that could kill you.  Okay, let’s go on:

Mucci continues:  “The hyper-inflammatory diet also is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer,” particularly in men who develop cancer at a younger age, in their forties and fifties.  “It may be that earlier-onset cancers are more susceptible to the effect of diet and lifestyle.”

What does heart health have to do with it?  A lot, for many reasons.  It turns out, says Mucci, that “cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases are the major cause of death in many men who have prostate cancer.  If you look at men with localized prostate cancer and survival outcomes over 10 years, three-fourths of the deaths in those men will be due either to cardiovascular disease or another chronic disease.  Only one-fourth of the mortality is due to prostate cancer.”  Now, you may be thinking, we all have to die of something, right?  This is true, but “these men are dying sooner than they should, and eating a plant-based diet rich in cruciferous vegetables will help lower that risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Which brings us to the Mediterranean Diet:  Not only do people in Mediterranean countries, as compared to Americans, eat more vegetables and fruits, fewer fatty foods, less processed junk, and less red meat – “which increases insulin resistance, increases inflammation, raises cardiovascular risk and also is part of a dietary pattern that may increase obesity, as well,” as Mucci notes.  You know what else they eat a lot of?  Olive oil.  Greater than 30 ml a day, which is a little over two tablespoons.  “There’s really good evidence that extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), either on its own or as part of the Mediterranean diet, substantially lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and lowers the risk of overall mortality.  The evidence specifically for men with prostate cancer is much more limited, but given the strong benefits for overall death and cardiovascular death in particular, not only using EVOO, but using it to replace butter or margarine, is something that is worth doing.”

 

Coming up:  Part 2:  What’s Good for the Prostate is Good for All of You!


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

 

 

 

The dumpster fire that is 2020 just keeps on burning, and the latest fuel for this crappy fire is a study, published in the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, showing that the incidence of men being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer doubled between 2003 and 2017. 

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why:  Many men are not getting screened for prostate cancer.  It’s not just because of Covid.  (By the way, the coronavirus fallout is massive:  neglected routine medical maintenance – mammograms, colonoscopy, dental visits, yearly bloodwork, delayed care.  I am also extremely worried about the mental health ramifications of isolation, particularly on the elderly, which I will be addressing in other posts.)

No, this failure to screen for prostate cancer has been going on for a while.  It upsets me greatly, because I have known too many men over the years who have died from metastatic prostate cancer.  Wonderful men, like this one.  If these men had been screened regularly, with a simple PSA blood test even if they didn’t get a physical exam, they might have been diagnosed with cancer that was still confined to the prostate, cancer that’s much easier to treat, cancer that can be cured.

But no.  They didn’t get screened because their family doctor told them they didn’t need to.  And this is because, often, family doctors don’t know all the ins and outs of screening for particular cancers; they simply can’t be specialists in everything, so they rely heavily on the government guidelines.  They don’t consider that maybe the guidelines were written by people who might have an axe to grind, people who might want to ration care, people who might think that every single man diagnosed with prostate cancer gets unnecessary treatment and suffers terrible side effects, as if there hasn’t been any improvement in prostate cancer screening and treatment since the 1990s, or people who might believe, mistakenly, that prostate cancer is very slow-growing and doesn’t need to be treated at all – or all of the above.

In 2012, the brain trust of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) – speaking of dumpster fires– published guidelines discouraging routine screening for prostate cancer, concluding that the benefits do not outweigh the harms of treatment.  Urologists and medical oncologists protested this from the get-go.

How’d that work out for us?  Not great.  This was a disastrous ruling, and in 2018, the USPSTF walked it back, lamely, saying that prostate cancer screening for men aged 55-69 should be “an individualized decision based on personal preferences when weighing the benefits and harms of screening.”

What’s wrong with this?  So much.  For one thing, men need to start getting screened in their 40s.  If you have a family history of prostate cancer, you need to start getting screened at age 40.  For another, why is there a cutoff at age 69?  Healthy older men can still be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and can still be cured of it – or, conversely, still die from metastatic prostate cancer – so this, too, is just misguided.  I’ve written about that here.  For another, what are the personal preferences?  Not wanting to die of prostate cancer?

There are also lifestyle factors that put you at higher risk; do they mention those?  No.  If you are obese, or if you smoke, and you get prostate cancer, you are more likely to die of it.  (Good news:  if you lose weight and/or stop smoking, your risk of dying starts to drop right away.  You can read more about that here.)

And finally:  a lot of men don’t know their family history.  Or, their family history is happening in real time, as an uncle, father, brother, or grandfather is diagnosed with prostate cancer.  If you have prostate cancer in your family, that puts you at a higher risk of getting it, and you need to be screened regularly.

But what about the risks of treatment – namely, the risk of incontinence and impotence?  Fair question.  First, here’s something else very important you need to know:  Three-fourths of men in the U.S. are diagnosed with localized prostate cancer, and many of those men don’t have to do anything at all!  If you are diagnosed with Gleason 6 cancer, you can simply monitor it closely with active surveillance.  It may well be that the cancer will just sit there, not grow fast, and not spread.  You may never need treatment, and after many years, you can just die with it, not of it.   Or, you can get the cancer treated with surgery or radiation.

But about those risks:  Yes, there are side effects to surgery.  This is why you do your best to minimize those side effects by finding the best surgeon possible.  Here are some ways to do that.  Those side effects are treatable.  There are much worse side effects to treatment for metastatic prostate cancer, which includes androgen deprivation therapy (ADT).  ADT’s side effects include the loss of testosterone, loss of sexual desire, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, breast enlargement, and a higher risk of other health problems including diabetes, heart attack, stroke, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, and cognitive impairment.

I know men with metastatic prostate cancer who would give anything to be dealing with the aftereffects of surgery for localized prostate cancer if it meant they could be cancer-free.  

Hear this:  I am confident the survival rates for men with metastatic prostate cancer are rising and will go up even higher with the use of second-line hormonal therapy (androgen receptor blockers like abiraterone, enzalutamide, and others); with smarter use of SBRT radiation to treat isolated spots of cancer before widespread metastasis; with immunotherapy and gene-targeted therapy, which are both still in their early days in prostate cancer; and with PSMA-targeted radionuclides.  There are many exciting treatments in the works, and some of them have the potential to be game-changers.

That said, for the years this study covered (between 2003-2017), fewer than one-third of men diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer survived five years.  The five-year survival rate actually rose during the study’s time period, from nearly 29 percent between 2001 and 2005 to more than 32 percent between 2011 and 2016.  Again, don’t let these numbers discourage you:  they are going to get better with the new treatments on the horizon.

In contrast, for men diagnosed with localized prostate cancer, the 10-year relative survival rate was 100 percent.

Between 2003 and 2017, about 3.1 million men were diagnosed with prostate cancer.  In 2003, 78 percent of these men were diagnosed with localized cancer; in 2017, this had dropped to 70 percent.  In 2003, 4 percent of men were diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.  By 2017, this percentage had doubled to 8 percent.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you may remember that I wrote about this disturbing trend in 2018.  You can read more about it here.  I interviewed Edward “Ted” Schaeffer, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of Urology at Northwestern University.  Here’s some of what he said:  “Hindsight is 20/20, and there’s no question that when PSA screening first became available, many men were overdiagnosed.”  Back in the 1990s, doctors hadn’t figured out who needs to be treated and who can safely do active surveillance.  They know a lot more now.  In 2018, Schaeffer had already noticed this disturbing trend – declining rates in the diagnosis of low-grade, localized prostate cancer, and a sharp increase in the number of men newly diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.  “We need nationwide refinements in prostate cancer screening and treatment, to prevent men from being diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.

“We don’t want to diagnose low-grade cancers,” which may never need to be treated.  “But we really need to pick up the disease before it becomes metastatic.”

 

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

 

“I started doing all of this because I read about it on your blog.”  Vernon is a college professor who had radical prostatectomy eleven months ago, who contacted me to tell his story, because he hopes it will help other men. “I didn’t hear much about this at all from my surgeon.”  Vernon is black, and he had aggressive prostate cancer. “Thank goodness, it was caught early, because I was getting my PSA checked.  My father and brother had it, so I started getting checked 10 years ago, when I was 40.”

When Vernon’s cancer was found, he had robotic prostatectomy. “It was a no-brainer, because I was just 50.  But now that the cancer is gone – my PSA has been undetectable at three months, six months, and now I’m moving to every six months of follow-up blood tests – I am working hard to get the rest of my life back.  I’ve got a lot of living to do!”

It is Vernon’s nature, as he says, to do research.  So that’s what he did:  he got online and started reading everything he could about recovery of urinary continence and sexual potency after prostatectomy.  “I started taking Cialis, not just as needed but every day,” he says.  He asked his doctor for a prescription, and talked to him about taking “more than the FDA-approved dose: 20 mg a day, every day.”  His doctor said that this would be okay, since Vernon didn’t have any other health problems.  Why would Vernon want to take it every day?   “Because I read that it may help prevent loss of penile length and keep the penis vascularized” (maximize blood flow to the penis).  Has this helped?  “I’m not there yet, but I’ve definitely seen improvement over time,” he says.  “At first, I was pretty discouraged, because I had no erections right after the surgery.  Then, three to four months in, I started getting a partial erection, maybe 30-40 percent of what it was, and now it’s up to about 70 percent when I wake up in the morning.”  It still is not enough for penetration, he believes, “but it’s getting there.”

This hasn’t stopped Vernon from returning to a sex life with his wife.  “Right now, I have to use the vacuum erection device (VED) and the ring (placed at the base of the penis like a temporary mini-tourniquet, to keep the erection),” he says.  “But it works!”  He has not tried injecting his penis.  “I just don’t want to stick a needle in my penis, but I’m becoming more open to the idea.  I also don’t want to get Peyronie’s,” a condition where the penis becomes less straight when erect; this is thought to be due to scar tissue.  “I am hoping that ultimately, erections will come back on their own,” he says.  “I’m just trying to help the process along.”

Penile stretching:  “I really did not want to have shrinkage,” Vernon says.  “So, based on what Dr. Trinity Bivalacqua said in your post, and my own research, I started using a vacuum erection device (VED).  I picked one that nurse at my urologist’s recommended.  But then I also read about this British VED that uses water, that was really marketed more toward making the penis bigger, not for recovery after prostatectomy.  I like that one better; I think it does a better job of improving blood flow. Plus, you can put warm water in there, as warm as you can stand, so that has a vasodilatory (increasing blood flow) effect, as well.”

“I’m really glad I started using that as early as I did, about three weeks post op,” he continues.  “When I first started, it hurt like hell.   Everything was kind of scarred; it almost felt like I was breaking scar tissue up.  That got better within a week or so,” and he could tell the penis was beginning to stretch back to its former length.  “Then,” after further reading on the internet, “I got the Viberect,” a device “designed to help you get an erection by vibration.  I think it helps.  It seems to help more over time.  I think the important thing is just — if you think about how sex works — it’s mechanical stimulation that gets translated to the nerves.  So it makes sense that if you did something that would mechanically stimulate the nerves, you would help promote the function.  It’s kind of like using a muscle to make it stronger.  It’s not like a pleasure device; you feel like a buzzing sensation.  I just keep telling myself that I won’t be doing this forever, and when I’ve recovered, I can just have sex with my wife like always.”

In the meantime, “I have been able to have intercourse with my wife using the VED and the ring,” he reports.  “Once, I used the looser ring and it was not tight enough to keep the blood flow, so it didn’t work.  But with the tighter ring, it worked!  It was successful.

“The one thing nobody tells you,” he adds, “is the whole orgasm thing.  It’s different.  It’s not the way it used to be.  Before, it was like this buildup, and then this release. There’s none of that. It’s more like … you miss the appetizer and the main course, and go straight to dessert, but I can see how women have multiple orgasms, it seems like it’s all in the brain.  It’s kind of bypassed all the hardware down there. You don’t get that pent up feeling.  There are contractions but they’re not really doing anything,” and the climax is “dry” ejaculation, because there is no semen.   Vernon doesn’t want men to be discouraged by this:  “It’s still wonderful.  It’s just different.”

What about incontinence?  “Everybody said, do Kegels, do Kegels,” Vernon says.  “The problem there is, I felt I could not sense the anterior part of the pelvic floor, the part I could contract.  I could feel it contract in the back, toward the anus, and the middle, toward the scrotum. I could not feel the front.  Then I read that men who lack sensation in the proximal urethra are the ones who have more trouble with incontinence.  So I thought, how can I contract something I can’t feel?”  Once again, Vernon turned to the internet, “and sure enough, there were devices marketed for male urinary incontinence that involve patches and electrical stimulation — basically a TENS unit.  I thought, if that can do what I can’t and it wasn’t too expensive, then why not?  So I bought it from England.”  This particular unit “comes with two options.  One is an electrode you put in at the anus with some lubricant, and the other are patches, and to get the anterior part, you basically put a patch just above the penis in the front and behind the scrotum in the back, or the patch above the penis in the front and the rectal probe.  The device has programs for urge, stress, or mixed, so I used the one for stress incontinence.”  The key seems to be in repeated use, he adds.  “If I don’t do it for a while, I will use the rectal probe, but ordinarily, I can just use the perineal patch and the suprapubic patch.  If I keep doing it, it works, and I hardly have any drips.  If I use it regularly, I am able to do a Kegel in the front, but if I don’t do it, I lose the sensation there, and I have to start back up again.”

Vernon has his eye on the prize of a cancer-free life that one day, will be pretty much back to normal.  “I’m optimistic.  It’s just slow.  From what I’ve read, nothing’s able to speed up the recovery.  I’m just trying to stack the deck in my favor. On the other hand, I feel like I’m young and I’m lucky.  I had aggressive cancer, and it was caught early!  Thank God!  I want to live!  I feel like I’ve been given the gift of life. I just want all of my life back.”

In sharing his story, Vernon hopes that if you are facing prostatectomy, you will be inspired to be proactive about your own recovery, so you can get your life back, too.  Note:  This is just one man’s approach.  Talk to your doctor about the best approach for you.  That said, if you’re not getting the answers you need, do your own research.  Many medical centers have experts on sexual health and urinary incontinence.  This is their job.  Please don’t be stoic and just wait for it to get better on your own.

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

 

If, as we have seen, inflammation can lead to prostate cancer, could anti-inflammatory agents help protect against it?

The jury’s still out.  However:  Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., has been intrigued by this possibility for many years.  She is senior author of a new study on the use of aspirin and statins, published in Cancer Prevention Research.  The study, of men in the placebo arm of the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, doesn’t answer this question once and for all – but adds more weight to the idea that, for lowering the risk of developing potentially fatal prostate cancer, fighting inflammation is a good thing.

Evidence from observational studies has suggested that when taken regularly over time, aspirin may lower the risk of prostate cancer.  These drugs block enzymes that play a key role in the body’s inflammatory response.  Other studies have linked long-term use of statins, prescription drugs that are used to lower cholesterol but that also are anti-inflammatory, to a lower risk of advanced and metastatic prostate cancer.

In this most recent study, the investigators looked for inflammation markers in benign prostate tissue samples.  “We compared the use aspirin and statins with the presence and extent of inflammation in the prostate tissue,” says Platz.  They also looked at prostate biopsy slides for the presence of certain immune cells that are involved in inflammation.

“Of 357 men, 61 percent reported aspirin use, and 32 percent reported statin use,” Platz continues.  “Aspirin users were more likely to have low FoxP3, a T regulatory cell marker, and statin users were more likely to have a low CD68, a macrophage marker.”  “Our results suggest these medications may alter the immune environment of the prostate. A next step is to determine whether these immune alterations may underlie the epidemiologic observations that taking an aspirin or statin may protect against getting advanced prostate cancer, and dying from it.”

Prostate Cancer Loves Fats          

Here’s some more recent research out of Johns Hopkins, a neat bit of  basic science that may help explain the findings of Platz’s recent study:  “Our work is mechanistic,” says investigator Marikki Laiho, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Molecular Radiation Sciences, “and provides insight into how the tumor microenvironment senses the excess load of the lipids.  Diet and statins obviously relate to the amount and regulation of the lipids, and have shown those clear correlations to prostate cancer.  However, we need to understand why to be able to correct the problem. Our work provides at least one explanation how the lipids fuel cancer. One part of the work was just to feed the prostate cancer cells with cholesterol, which made them more invasive.”

It turns out that even on a cellular level, prostate cancer gravitates to its own kind of junk food – the tiny version of deep-fried Oreos with a side of chili cheese fries.  Laiho and colleagues have just figured out how the body enables prostate cancer’s terrible diet.

The culprit is a lipid-regulating protein called CAVIN1, the scientists reported in the journal, Molecular Cancer Research.  In lab studies, when CAVIN1 was removed from cells in and around the prostate tumor, the fatty acid that was in those cells spilled into the tumor’s microenvironment.   The effect on prostate cancer cells was dramatic:  the cancer cells soaked up the lipids, which then acted as turbo fuel to make the cancer spread more aggressively.

“In every prostate cancer cell line we tested,” says research fellow Jin-Yih Low, Ph.D., the study’s first author, “tumor cells universally had an appetite for the lipids, using them to strengthen the protective membrane around the cell, synthesize proteins and make testosterone to support and fuel the cancer’s growth.  The tumor cells then behaved more aggressively, exhibiting invasive and metastatic behavior.  Just having access to the lipids gave the tumor cells more power; the tumor’s behavior changed.”

But wait!  There’s more:  nearby cells changed, too.  Deprived of their lipids, normal stromal cells started to churn out inflammatory molecules, adding fuel of their own to the fire. 

Laiho’s team then confirmed their findings in mouse models, comparing tumors with and without CAVIN1 in the stromal cells.  In the mice, Laiho says, “although the presence or absence of CAVIN1 did not affect the speed of tumor growth, lack of CAVIN1 definitely caused the cancer to spread.  All of the mice with tumors that lacked CAVIN1 had a twofold to fivefold increase in metastasis.  The tumors also had a fortyfold to hundredfold increase in lipids and inflammatory cells.”

The investigators were surprised at these results, Laiho adds.  “We suspected CAVIN1 was important, but we didn’t realize how important.  The tumor’s microenvironment matters, and the amount of lipids matters a lot.”  Just changing the level of lipids “created a situation of rampant metastasis.”

What could come from this research?  One possibility is development of a new biomarker:  a loss of CAVIN1 in local or locally advanced cancer, for example, could signal a higher risk of metastasis.  The next step is to understand more about the inflammatory process in the tumor’s microenvironment.  “We want to understand why the inflammation brings in macrophages, immune cells that further exacerbate the inflammatory process, instead of T cells, which should attack the cancer.”  The more scientists know about how inflammation does its nasty work to inflame cancer, the closer we are to finding a way to stop it.

 

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

Why does it matter if you eat right and exercise?  Everybody knows the answer; in fact, we’ve all heard it so many times, it’s easy to tune it out:  diet and exercise are good for you.  Duh!  Who’s going to argue with that? Having a healthy lifestyle is right up there with world peace as a worthy goal!

Bear with me here:  With a topic such as this, I know I’m either preaching to the choir – people who are already exercising and eating a pretty good diet – or I run the risk of turning off the people I really want to hear this message, by seeming to preach at all: people who might think, “Go ahead, tell me what to do.  I really enjoy that.  Micromanage my life.  Maybe you’d like to come over and look at my closet and tell me what shirt to wear today.”

Okay, fine!  I’m not here to tell you what to do.  But I am going to try really hard to tell you why you might want to do certain things, and how good diet and exercise – or the lack thereof – can affect prostate cancer.

Please pardon the long set-up, but let’s begin with some facts, with plenty of links for further reading:

If you exercise, you are less likely to have cancer return after treatment, less likely to get metastatic prostate cancer and die of it.  What does exercise do?  A lot of good things for your vascular system, which, in turn, can help slow down prostate cancer metastasis.  But you know what it also does?  It helps you lose weight.

And it just so happens, men who lose weight are less likely to die of prostate cancer.

And sugar can make cancers grow faster.

And men who stop smoking are less likely to have cancer come back after treatment, and less likely to die of prostate cancer.

Exercise also helps control stress, and the stress hormone, cortisol, affects adrenal receptors, and can play a role in making cancer grow and spread faster.

Now, here’s why all this matters so much:  smoking, not exercising, quaffing sugary drinks, eating processed, fatty foods, and being overweight all contribute to inflammation.

I’m going to be writing a lot about inflammation in the next few posts, because it is becoming increasingly evident that inflammation can lead to cancer – and it’s quite possible that if we can prevent inflammation, we may prevent or at least slow down cancer.

What Inflammation Does

In a landmark study, Karen Sfanos, Ph.D., and scientists at Johns Hopkins have shown for the first time that bacterial infection can cause prostate cancer.  The study was led by Sfanos and her former graduate student, Eva Shrestha, Ph.D., in collaboration with Angelo De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D., Jonathan Coulter, Ph.D., and colleagues.  Infection? That’s not the same as inflammation!  True… but bear with me.

The bacterial culprit found in this study belongs to the family Enterobacteriaceae, which includes E. coli. Better known as a nasty gastrointestinal bug, E. coli causes inflammation in the urinary tract and is a known cause of bacterial prostatitis.  As the scientists discovered, colibactin, a genotoxin produced by some strains of E. coli, can also instigate a series of unfortunate events in the prostate.  Bacterial infection leads to acute and chronic inflammation, which can lead to the development of a lesion in the prostate called proliferative inflammatory atrophy (PIA), first described by pathologist De Marzo, oncologist William (Bill) Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., and other Johns Hopkins scientists; it can also cause DNA damage. The presence of colibactin is even more ominous, because it can directly lead to double-stranded DNA breakage. 

Sfanos suspects that this combination leads, in turn, to another development:  fusion of two genes, TMPRSS2 and ERG, that normally should remain separate, but in this case get abnormally spliced together.  Now, it may be that by themselves, TMPRSS2 and ERG are like Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh:  put them together, and they became Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and together, they got into much worse trouble than either one managed alone.  This TMPRSS2/ERG fusion – found in as many as half of all prostate cancers – is thought be an early event leading to the development of prostate cancer.

“We found evidence in human tissues (from prostatectomy specimens) that bacterial infections are initiating the TMPRSS2/ERG fusion,” says Sfanos.  “We don’t think this is the only way bacterial infections contribute to cause prostate cancer.  But in this particular study, the way we looked at it was by tracking the presence of these TMPRSS2/ERG fusions.”

It is entirely possible, notes De Marzo, “that other types of mutations or events could also be caused by bacterial infections or inflammation.  But looking at these fusions gave us ‘smoking gun’ evidence that bacterial infection was the initiating event.”  Sfanos adds that “the colibactin-producing bacteria, TMPRSS2/ERG fusions, PIA, and tiny buds of cancer were all there, in the same place at the same time, a snapshot of prostate cancer being born.”  The team’s early findings are available online in BioRxiv, a scientific data-sharing website, and a manuscript for publication is undergoing peer review.

Bacterial infection is a known cause of other cancers.  H. pylori, for example, is a well-established cause of stomach cancer.  “We believe that many different types of microorganisms, certain types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and other infections in the prostate can certainly cause the same chain of events,” says Sfanos.

How did the bacteria get into the prostate?  They could have come from the urethra.  “These bacteria are good crawlers,” Sfanos says.  De Marzo recalls what the late Don Coffey, Ph.D., the longtime director of the Brady’s scientific labs, used to say: “The urethra is like the Holland Tunnel for bacteria.”

Note:  These tiny cancers are not the cancers that were biopsied and that led to the diagnosis of prostate cancer; they’re too young even to achieve a Gleason grade.  They’re just baby sites of cancer cropping up, in addition to the more mature cancer that was already there.  Prostate cancer is multifocal:  in most men with prostate cancer, several sites of cancer develop at the same time.  But because of the unique molecular tools used in this study – looking for TMPRSS2/ERG fusions and “ERG-positive PIA” – Sfanos, De Marzo and colleagues were able to catch the formation of these invasive cancers in real time.  “This might start to explain the multifocal nature of prostate cancer,” says Sfanos. “There might be multiple infections or other inflammatory events that occur throughout a man’s lifetime.”

Sfanos suspects that the men whose tissue was used for this study “likely all had undiagnosed infections.”  These findings may lead to development of a new test, using urine or prostatic fluid, to look for colibactin or markers of inflammation in the prostate.  Future studies may look at urine samples along with prostate tissue for such markers, and  new imaging technology may one day be able to detect inflammation, as well.

For more than 20 years, De Marzo and Sfanos, with Brady scientists Bill Nelson, Srinivasan Yegnasubramanin, M.D. Ph.D., Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., and William Isaacs, Ph.D., have studied inflammation as a risk factor for prostate cancer, particularly looking at PIA.  Sfanos “has also been the major champion of infection” as a risk factor, De Marzo says.  Now, these two paths of investigation have come together.

Could dietary changes make a difference?  “Bill Nelson showed years ago that loss of expression of the GSTP1 gene rendered prostate cells more susceptible to DNA damage caused by a chemical compound that is found in charred meat,” says De Marzo.  “Infection plus a bad diet might make this worse, and then combine that with the underlying genetics.  There might be multiple culprits, a constellation of things over years.”  We’re going to look more at diet in future posts.

Coming up next:  Could anti-inflammatory drugs help?

 

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

News flash:  All metastasis is not alike, and the basic category of “metastatic prostate cancer” is being redefined by doctors and scientists even as we speak.  It’s not just either-or anymore – either cancer is confined to the prostate area, or it has escaped.  It’s actually more of a spectrum, and it is very likely that there’s wiggle room – and still the potential for cure – between cancer escaping the local area around the prostate and full-blown, widespread, metastatic cancer, if we can catch it in time.

I’ve written previously about the work of Johns Hopkins radiation oncologist Phuoc Tran, because I really like what he’s trying to do:  widen the window of curability of prostate cancer.  Great news:  he’s not alone!  Doctors all over the world are rethinking metastasis in prostate cancer and other cancers, as well.  Recently, Tran was one of several experts to take part in a seminar the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) put together.  I was lucky enough to be able to cover it for the PCF, and now I want to make sure you know about the kind of go-getters there are out there who don’t just accept that, if cancer leaves its primary organ, it can’t still be treated and maybe even cured with local treatment.  Better imaging is making it possible to see these cancers sooner than we ever could before.  The reason I want you to know this: if your doctor says you have a couple bits of cancer outside the prostate, so it’s time to start your lifetime of ADT – I want to encourage you to ask around and see if there’s another possibility.

Rethinking Metastasis

For a very long time, many doctors believed, and many still believe, that if we don’t cure cancer while it’s confined to the prostate, then that’s it.  Game over, it’s not curable.  Note:  That doesn’t mean it can’t be treated, sometimes for many years!   But in terms of treatment, traditionally, metastasis has meant bye-bye, local therapy, and hello, systemic therapy – androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), androgen receptor-blocking drugs such as apalutamide or enzalutamide, and chemotherapy.  For patients with metastatic prostate cancer who see their doctors every three months for just a few minutes at a time, that can feel, as one patient’s son put it, like “Lupron and a handshake.”

But a lot of things have come together recently to make doctors and scientists say, “Not so fast!  Maybe there’s a window, and maybe the window is wider than we thought.”  One of these things is the recent ORIOLE study, led by Johns Hopkins radiation oncologist and PCF-funded investigator Phuoc Tran, M.D., Ph.D.  Another is the development over the last decade of better imaging, such as PSMA-PET, which allows tiny bits of cancer to be seen months before they could be seen on conventional imaging, such as a CT scan or bone scan.   Better imaging has sparked an idea:  “If we can see it, we can treat it.”

Is it true?  Can treating little spots of cancer, before full-blown metastasis develops, prolong life?  Recently, the PCF brought together some of the country’s best and brightest – experts in radiation oncology, oncology, urology, and basic science – for a worldwide exchange of knowledge, a webinar attended by more than 300 scientists around the world.  The topic was oligometastasis.  Oligometastasis is just a little bit of metastasis; definitions vary, but generally, scientists who use this word are generally talking about fewer than 3 or 5 spots of cancer that have escaped from the main tumor.  It’s not widespread; it’s limited.  That doesn’t mean it can’t go on to cause trouble later.  If your kids or grandkids are into Pokémon, it’s like catching a little monster before it evolves into something more powerful.

Is oligometastasis treatable?  It is in some other cancers.   In colon cancer, for example, oligometastasis is treated with surgery or spot radiation in addition to removing the primary tumor, and sometimes it’s cured!   Phuoc Tran’s ORIOLE study, and now promising early results from other studies, including ORIOLE’s successor, the RAVENS study, suggest that treating oligometastasis – in Tran’s case, with SABR (stereotactic ablative body radiation, also called SRBT, a highly focused, intense dose of radiation therapy) – in addition to treating the primary prostate tumor can change the course of metastasis in some patients.

Patients reach oligometastasis in different ways.  Some reach it by biochemical recurrence – the dreaded rise of PSA after treatment of the primary tumor in the prostate with surgery or radiation.  Others are diagnosed from the get-go with cancer that has already spread outside the prostate.  The standard of care for most of these latter patients is not only not to treat the main tumor, but not to zap or surgically remove the few sites of metastasis. 

Why not?  Why the heck not?  Or, as Tran says, “It makes so much sense, so why don’t we do it?  Because we have tried periodically over the past five decades to treat metastatic disease aggressively with local therapies, and because of lack of imaging, treatment technology and just general lack of our ability to take care of patients, this approach did not work.”  In fact, he continues, “it was actually a resounding failure, and made many who lived through these periods very scared of doing much more harm than good.  One of the first texts on this concept, called ‘Solitary Metastases,’ actually started out with a chapter called “Illusion or Reality.’”

But that was then.  Even now, there’s not yet definitive proof that it works.  But take heart:  the winds of change are blowing! 

This brings us to the PCF 2020 Global Knowledge Exchange on Oligometastatic Prostate Cancer.  Eric Klein, M.D., Chairman of the Glickman Urological & Kidney Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, who moderated the discussion, set the stage with a story about a patient, seen by him and medical oncologist Howard Scher, M.D., of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC).  The patient was in his 50s, diagnosed with Gleason 9 cancer that extended slightly past the prostate, into the seminal vesicles.  He also had cancer in a lymph node.  The man received ADT for six months, had a radical prostatectomy, then was on abiraterone plus prednisone for a year afterward.  A bone scan showed one spot of cancer; it was treated with radiation at MSKCC.  “He’s about eight or nine years out now,” says Klein.  “He has an undetectable PSA and a normal testosterone.”

As the PCF’s CEO, Jonathan Simons, M.D., says, “One clinical case well studied can change the course of medical history.”  This patient’s exceptional clinical course has led Klein ask to the big question:  “If we can seemingly cure one man with metastatic prostate cancer, can we cure others?  And are we at a place now in the field to be asking the right questions, with the right trial behind them?”

Ralph Weichselbaum, M.D., Chair of the Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology at the University of Chicago, is the radiation oncologist who coined the term, “oligometastasis.”  He specializes in treating it in various forms of cancer.  Not only does metastasis represent a spectrum of disease, he says, “depending on the number of metastases, the organs involved, and the pace of progression,” but patients represent a spectrum, too.  “There are subsets of patients who are potentially curable with metastasis-directed therapies” (treating breakout tumors directly, and not relying on systemic therapy alone).  What accounts for these subsets?  Genetic factors, and also the robustness of the patient’s immune system.  Weichselbaum’s research suggests that patients with a well-functioning immune system are better able to hold metastasis in check than others.  In other words, whether oligometastasis responds to treatment depends on “the complex relationship between tumor and host.”

It May Require the Proverbial Kitchen Sink

Scher and Mary-Ellen Taplin, M.D., medical oncologist and Director of Clinical Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology, collaborated on the design of a multi-arm, multi-modality therapy clinical trial with funding from a PCF Challenge Award.  “Our focus is the patient with high-risk localized disease, or low-volume or recurrent metastatic disease,” said Taplin. The trial will be looking at many things, including potential biomarkers for sensitivity and resistance to treatment.  But one of the objectives is of particular interest:  “to eliminate all disease in patients largely incurable with any single treatment.” 

In other words: to kill prostate cancer that has escaped the prostate, these doctors and others believe, in addition to targeting the primary tumor with prostatectomy or radiation, it may well take a short course of ADT, perhaps also chemotherapy, maybe further external-beam radiation to the area around the prostate, and then radiation or radiofrequency ablation to the metastatic sites themselves.   But then, the hope is that these patients will have an undetectable PSA and that they will get their testosterone back.

There are several other important trials underway to treat oligometastasis in prostate cancer.  Of all the things scientists hope to learn from these trials, perhaps most important, says medical oncologist Ana Aparicio, M.D., of MD Anderson Cancer Center, is “how do these site-directed therapies work?”  Will the success come from messing up the circulating tumor microenvironment?  One idea is that, as cancer spreads, it sends messengers back for supplies to the other sites where cancer is already established, using the bloodstream as a liquid version of Fed Ex.  “Or, are we modulating the immune response?  Does the primary tumor have an immunosuppressive effect that limits the ability of the patient’s immune system to control the disease?  Or, are we having an immune-stimulatory effect with treatments?  We may need to build on that, and combine radiation with some novel immunotherapies.  Or, are we decreasing the tumor burden,” by zapping sites of oligometastasis?

Two Icebergs

Aparicio draws a picture for her patients to help explain:  There are two icebergs, one blue, one yellow.  “The blue one, most of it is above the water,” she notes.  “If you get rid of what you see, it is likely that the iceberg is going to take a long time to grow again and become a problem.  So, if what we see on the scans is most of the disease that’s present, then yes, addressing all the sites we can see can be beneficial.  But if it’s just the tip of the iceberg (like the yellow picture), and there’s a large burden of tumor we are not able to detect with our imaging tools, we’ll find that the disease grows very quickly.”

Better imaging, such as PSMA-PET, will undoubtedly help determine the true state of tumor burden, “particularly when the PSA is rising, but it’s less than 10; conventional imaging really is not useful when the PSA is 5 or 10,” says Phuoc Tran.  He believes the number of patients with oligometastasis in the U.S. is huge, “much higher than the number of men diagnosed each year.”  Right now, “systemic therapy is the standard of care for patients with metastatic disease,” says Tran.  “But in that gray area of biochemical recurrence (PSA creeping back up after prostatectomy or radiation of the primary tumor), as men are approaching low-volume metastasis, there’s a perfectly reasonable period in which you can ask the question, does local therapy change the metastatic process?” That was the question behind the ORIOLE trial.

“If the oligometastatic state didn’t exist, if this were not a spectrum, and if local therapy could not alter that natural history of metastasis, then we shouldn’t be able to affect progression at all with local therapy alone.  Patients should progress no matter what.  We did not see that.  Obviously, stronger evidence is needed,” but the results of the ORIOLE trial and early results of the RAVENS trial have been very encouraging.

It may be, says Weichselbaum, that we are dealing with multiple, different disease states, “requiring entirely different kinds of treatments.  We need to define really what metastasis is, and how the systemic treatments and ablative treatments fit together for optimal therapeutic outcome.”

And maybe one day, says Tran, “we can alter the natural history of metastasis, and cure these patients with formerly incurable disease.”

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