Day 2,841 – A Chat with the Urologist

I met with the urologist this afternoon to go over my 1 August 2018 PSA test results and it was an interesting conversation.

This was a new guy wearing his spiffy white lab coat with the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) emblem embroidered on the pocket. (I pretty much see a different doctor each time I go to the VA hospital and, yes, UCSD doctors care for patients at the VA hospital, too.) I had my PSA trend chart printed and sitting on his desk when he walked in, which he appreciated seeing the whole history on one page.

I let him start the conversation and it was pretty clear right from the start that he was of the “continue to monitor; no need to act right away” mindset. He really focused on my PSA doubling time being so long as being the reason for his recommendation to just watch this for now.

I shared my conversation with the radiation oncologist with him and he really didn’t comment one way or the other about the R.O.’s initial recommendation to zap.

I did take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the urological side effects of being zapped in salvage radiation therapy. One of the things that I focused on was urinary strictures.

He explained that just by having a prostatectomy and stretching the bladder neck to reconnect with the urethra, you’re in essence creating a stricture to begin with. “That’s a good thing,” he said, “because it helps control the urine flow in the absence of the prostate.” But zapping the area will change the nature of the surrounding tissue and can cause it to close down further. If that’s the case, they may have to do a procedure to re-open things and that’s where you can get into the higher leakage scenarios.

One of the things that really resonated with me during that discussion about side effects was when he said that I shouldn’t even be worried about them because I could go months or years without even having to think about salvage radiation therapy. (And, no, I didn’t prompt him to say that!)

That led to a discussion about the newer imaging technologies and he reinforced what I already knew—that most are unreliable with PSAs less than 0.2 ng/ml. I told him that the spreadsheet that generated my chart shows that I won’t hit 0.2 until late 2020 or early 2021 if it continues at its current pace. Perhaps in that time, the new imaging technologies will be better and more reliable at lower PSA levels. (He was also empathetic to the idea of not zapping unless you knew where the cancer was.)

We also talked about the frequency of my PSA tests and his immediate response was that we could do this every six months, again, based on my PSA doubling time. That surprised me. We’ve been on a four-month cycle for three years now. He said it would be my call, so I opted to stick to the four-month cycle for at least one more cycle.

Wrapping up the conversation, I did ask, “If I do have to get zapped at some point, where would you do it? UCSD or Naval Medical Center?” He deflected my question and never responded, so I asked again. Again, he remained silent but his hint of a grin perhaps answered it for me.

All in all, I was pleased with the consult and am content to continue to monitor, with my next PSA test being in early December.

Yes, I know that more studies are showing that zapping recurrent prostate cancer early leads to better outcomes in the long run. But other studies (Pound, Freedland) show that someone with my pathology can delay or even forego additional treatment and its associated side effects impacting quality of life and stick around for an additional 8-15 years. So, yes, this is a bit like playing a game of chicken or Russian roulette, and that thought never leaves my mind.

So why not get zapped and be done with it? Because quality of life is very important to me and if I can maintain it for a few years more than I want to try and do that. Is there risk of the cancer getting away from me? Of course. But with continued monitoring and perhaps advances in imaging technology, we can stay one or two steps ahead of it.

Time will tell.

Day 2,827 – Q&A with the Radiation Oncologist

Just a quick update…

I shared my last PSA results with my radiation oncologist via email yesterday to see if the results would influence his treatment recommendation.

He stated that a stable PSA is “great news” and that “continuing to monitor at this point is a very reasonable approach.” I also asked if a four-month PSA test frequency was appropriate or if we should look at increasing the frequency. With my numbers, he said that a three to six month frequency was most common, so sticking to four months was fine.

I also asked for clarification about sexual function after salvage radiation therapy. For some reason, I had it in my mind that from our conversation during the initial consult, he said that zapping me would likely damage my one remaining nerve bundle to the point that sexual function would be a thing of the past. He corrected me.

He said that post-radiation function is highly dependent on pre-radiation function. There will likely be some degradation, but not necessarily a complete loss of function as I had somehow lodged in my brain.

He closed the conversation by saying, “Hopefully your PSA will continue to behave itself and we can worry about that [sexual function] down the road.”

Needless to say, I was quite pleased with those responses.

We’ll see what the urologist says on the 21st (I put the wrong date in my last post) but, for now, I’m fine with doing nothing until my next PSA test in December.

 

Life After Radical Prostatectomy: 90 Months Later

So it’s been 90 months since my radical prostatectomy. How am I doing?

Status

With a continuously rising PSA, it’s time to face that reality that I have a biochemical recurrence and the cancer is back. Now it’s just a matter of trying to figure out what to do about it. Far easier said than done.

Emotions

Whether consciously or subconsciously, I came to terms with the idea of recurrence a while ago. What I’m really struggling with right now is how I’m going to make the decision as to whether to proceed with salvage radiation therapy now, later, or even at all. I have no idea how I’m going to make that choice and be satisfied that it’s the right one. When I chose surgery and my surgeon after my initial diagnosis, I was completely satisfied with my choice, had no regrets, and never second-guessed it once. I’m lacking that confidence right now.

Incontinence

On the whole, I’m still doing well with incontinence—well into the mid-90% dry range. I have noticed, however, a few more unexpected minor leaks popping up than what I’m used to. That’s concerning, especially if I choose salvage radiation therapy and its potential side effects.

The leaks usually happen when I’m more physically active (especially lifting something heavy), so if I know I have that kind of activity planned in my day, I’ll throw a thin pad in my underwear for good measure.

Sexual Function

It seems that my ability to achieve decent erections has regressed a little, too. I’m probably more in the 70%-85% range now. Good enough to achieve an orgasm, but questionable for much more than that. Of course, if I have salvage radiation therapy, those numbers will likely drop significantly, especially because only one nerve bundle was left behind.

Summary

My first ever visit to a radiation oncologist in May was a defining moment for me. It certainly took its emotional and physical toll from me. I was so mentally and physically exhausted from the research and constant thoughts that I just had to stop and step away. I know I have a major decision ahead of me at some point in the future but, for now, I’m content with not thinking about it at all at the moment.

I know I’ll get snapped back into reality when I go for my next PSA test on 1 August 2018.

Day 2,758 – Heads or Tails

IMG_5341That’s what it’s coming down to, or so it seems. Using the ultimate “executive decision-making aid” to determine what I’m going to do.

What brought this on? Another email exchange between me and my radiation oncologist.

Over the weekend, a few more questions popped into my head and I wanted to get his response. Yesterday, I fired off an email asking if any advances in radiation delivery technology or methods in the last 10-15 years improved the side effect outcomes over the studies he shared with me. In short, the answer was no—there were no appreciable changes.

Of greater interest to me was his interpretation of the Freedland study, which shows that I can do nothing and have a 94% chance of being around 15 years from now. His response:

I am familiar with the study you included, and it is one of many retrospective reviews on this subject. The authors preformed a retrospective review on a total 379 patients over period of 18 years from 1982 – 2000. Therefore, although the data are valuable and contribute to the literature, I consider it (as well as the many other studies on this subject) thought provoking.

Perhaps I’m reading too much between the lines, but his last sentence translates into “skeptical of the study” to me. He continued:

The bottom line is that you have a biochemical recurrence with a low, slowly rising PSA.  Do you need radiation treatment now, sometime in the future or never?  I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but there are data to suggest “the earlier the better” and other data to suggest treatment might not be needed at all.  It depends on your point of view…

Am I upset by that response? Not really. It’s pretty much what I expected it to be, and that tells me that my research has been quite thorough. He and I both landed at the same place.

Will it make deciding my course of action any easier? Hell no. But it does reinforce that it’s my decision, and my decision alone.

Now where did I put those Eisenhower dollar coins again???

Day 2,754 – Researching Salvage Radiation Therapy—Again

It’s 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday of a three-day holiday weekend in the United States, and I’m reading articles on salvage radiation therapy. Who said prostate cancer wasn’t fun?!?

I did come across this informative article from the Journal of Clinical Oncology published in May 2007:

Predicting the Outcome of Salvage Radiation Therapy for Recurrent Prostate Cancer After Radical Prostatectomy

The authors set out to create a nomogram that predicted the “probability of cancer control at 6 years after SRT for PSA-defined recurrence,” and they speak at length about the variables used in their nomogram, as well as its limitations.

I plugged my stats into their nomogram and came up with a 70% probability that I won’t see any progression at six years. That’s right in line with what the radiation oncologist told me. (The nomogram is a little clunky to use, as it’s a graphical scale that you have to draw lines through to determine your score. I’d much rather have fields to enter on an online form that calculates it more precisely.)

There was one paragraph that talked about side effects of SRT that really caught my attention:

The potential for morbidity resulting from radiation therapy argues against its indiscriminate use in the salvage setting. Mild to moderate acute rectal and genitourinary toxicity is seen in the majority of patients, but the reported incidence of acute grade 3 to 4 complications is less than 4%.4,6,9,14,21,36 Late grade 1 to 2 rectal and genitourinary toxicity are reported in 5% to 20% of patients, and late grade 3 toxicity is less than 4%.3,4,6,8,11,21 Although rare, pelvic radiation therapy for prostate cancer is associated with an increased risk of secondary pelvic malignancies.40 Postprostatectomy radiotherapy does not appear to significantly increase the risk of urinary incontinence,3,4,6,14,21,41 but we must presume that it has some adverse effect on erectile function on the basis of the data from primary radiation therapy series. The nomogram can be used to restrict SRT to those patients most likely to benefit and avoid treatment-related morbidity in those predicted to have a low probability of a long-term benefit.

That 5% to 20% range for late grade 1 to 2 rectal and genitourinary toxicities made me go, “Hmmm…” Not quite the “single digits” probabilities that my radiation oncologist said.

After reading a number of the articles in the footnotes and listed on the “We recommend” column of the website, it’s apparent from most of them that starting SRT early is the way to go. It’s also apparent that the probability of being progression free at six years varies considerably from the 30% range to the 77% range depending on your PSA doubling time, PSA level, Gleason score, time to recurrence, and post-surgery pathology. But we already knew that.

This also caught my eye:

A rising PSA alone is not justification for initiating salvage therapy because patients with PSA recurrence are as likely to die as a result of competing causes as they are of prostate cancer.1 To determine the need for salvage therapy, we suggest using one of several existing tools to estimate the probability of developing metastatic disease or cancer-specific mortality.2,22,23 Patients at high risk of progression to these clinically significant events and/or a long life expectancy should be assessed for SRT using our nomogram.

Digging into the three footnotes listed, two are studies that I’ve already referred to in earlier posts—Pound and Freedland—and both suggest that it could take a very long time for the cancer to metastasize. The third study referenced, Predictors of Prostate Cancer–Specific Mortality After Radical Prostatectomy or Radiation Therapy, also reinforces that notion.

We’re right back where we started from: Zap early with an average 50-50 shot of it being effective (with the 4%-20% chance of long-term side effects) or do nothing but monitor.

I may send some of these links to my radiation oncologist on Tuesday and ask, “Which of these studies do you put the most stock in, and why?” and see what he says. Could be interesting.

Well that’s enough fun with cancer on a Saturday night. I’ll keep you posted on any new research findings or developments with the doctor.

Day 2,747 – Side Effects of Salvage Radiation Therapy

During my conversation with the radiation oncologist on Thursday, a big part of the discussion was on the long-term side effects of salvage radiation therapy. He stated that the probability of long-term urinary or rectal side effects was “in the single digits.” That reinforced my own understanding, but after the meeting, it occurred to me that we didn’t talk about the severity of those side effects in any detail.

I fired off an email to him on Friday asking, in essence, of those with long-term urinary and rectal side effects, what percent of those are mild, moderate, or severe?

He replied in a matter of hours and said that he couldn’t respond using the terminology in my email (I gave him definitions of what each of those meant in my own mind). Instead, he referred me to the Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events (CTCAE) used in standardizing terminology used in research across the globe. He referred me to “cystitis” and “proctitis” to see their definitions for grades 1 through 5. (Grade 1 was the least impactful; Grade 5 was typically death.)

The doctor also shared side effect data directly pulled from the manuscripts of 3 major randomized trials in post-prostatectomy patients. He didn’t provide the links—just the text—so I used the Google machine to come up with the links/articles. It’s interesting to note that all three are focused more on adjuvant radiation therapy than salvage therapy, but I suppose getting zapped for one is pretty much the same as getting zapped for the other.

 

Bolla et al, Lancet, Vol 366, Aug 2005

Late effects of rectal and bladder grade 3 or higher were only slightly increased in the XRT group vs. the observation group: 4.2% vs. 2.6%.

Wiegel et al, JCO, 2009

There was only one event of grade 3 toxicity (bladder). No grade 4 events were recorded. There were three events (2%) for grade 2 genitourinary adverse effects in the RT arm compared with none in the other arms. In addition, two grade 2 GI adverse effects (1.4%) were seen in the RT arm compared with none in the other arms.

It was interesting to note that the doctor omitted the second half of that paragraph from the original study:

Altogether, the cumulative rate of adverse effects for bladder and rectum (≥ grade 1) was 21.9% in the RT arm and 3.7% in the wait-and-see group (P < .0001; Appendix Fig A2, online only). One urethral stricture occurred in arm A and two occurred in arm B. Incontinence was not assessed, because it is not mentioned in the RTOG/EORTC scoring scheme.

Thompson et al, J Urology, 2009

We conducted a companion quality of life study in 217 men randomized to S8794 with assessments at baseline, 6 weeks, 6 months and annually for 5 years. A strength of this analysis was the inclusion of a 6-week assessment, designed to capture the side effects of radiotherapy at their peak. Tenderness and urgency of bowel movements were significantly more common at the 6-week point (47% vs 5%) in the radiotherapy group but by 2 years there was little difference between the groups. Urinary frequency was more commonly seen in the radiation group but there was no difference in the rate of erectile dysfunction (common in both groups) between groups. Global assessment of quality of life, while initially worse in the adjuvant radiotherapy group, became similar by year 2 and was increasingly superior in the radiotherapy group during the following 3 years. This gradual switch toward a superior quality of life in the adjuvant radiotherapy group should be examined in the context of the increased rates of PSA recurrence, salvage radiotherapy and hormonal therapy in the observation group, all of which have negative impacts on quality of life.

I’ve only skimmed the full studies at the moment, and I’ll come back to them in a day or two. On the surface, however, the numbers have eased my fear of long-term side effects a tad.

Right now, I just need to get away from the topic for a few hours and have some fun. Time to go out and play…

Stay tuned.

Day 2,745 – Conversation with the R.O.

When I was in 7th grade, I had to give a presentation on my science project, an erupting volcano, and I was so anxious about the presentation that I became physically ill and erupted myself. Not pretty. While I didn’t get physically ill today, the feeling was almost the same as I waited to see the radiation oncologist. It’s silly, I know. But it was very real.

In a nutshell, his recommendation was to start salvage radiation therapy.

The R.O. is a Navy captain medical officer, and we spent nearly forty-five minutes going over my case (which I truly appreciated). He took control of the conversation from the outset, explaining the options and consequences of each. I could tell that he had given this little presentation once or twice before. Once we got through that, we did have a real conversation. Some key points:

  • He disagreed with the notion that the increasing PSA is from residual benign prostate tissue left behind.
  • He was confident that the cancer would be in the prostate bed based on my numbers and statistics.
  • He talked about the differing definitions of biochemical recurrence, saying that the American Urological Association (AUA) and American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) use the 0.2 ng/ml threshold, but the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) defines recurrence as a detectable PSA with two consecutive increases. My case meets the NCCN definition.
  • Continued surveillance is a viable option for me given my numbers and PSA doubling time.
  • We talked about the short and long-term side effects of radiation therapy: urinary control, sexual function and bowel control. His estimate the probability of long-term quality of life-impacting side effects in any of the three areas to be in the “single digits.”
  • He reminded me of selection bias when talking to other patients or bloggers about their side effect experiences. Yes, their experiences are very real, but for each person in an online forum, there are many others outside the forum who are leading productive, acceptable lives.
  • If we were to do salvage radiation therapy now with my PSA under 0.2 ng/ml, he put the probability of me having no evidence of disease five years from now at seventy-five percent. If we wait until my PSA is above 0.2 ng/ml, that number decreases.
  • Newer scanning technologies weren’t likely to pick up anything at my current PSA levels, yet he was open to the idea of them if it gave me peace of mind.
  • With my numbers, there is no reason to radiate the pelvic lymph nodes or use androgen deprivation therapy (ADT).
  • He was open to waiting until the August PSA results to see what they revealed before making a decision.

It was a good conversation, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t know that there was a lot of new information for me there that would tip the scale either way. The doctor wasn’t pushy in one direction or the other, saying that it was equally reasonable for me to continue surveillance or for me to begin salvage radiation therapy. The choice is mine. About the only thing he was adamant about was not starting ADT, and I’m in perfect agreement with him on that.

I did learn one really interesting thing, however. The reason that the VA Medical Center referred me to Naval Medical Center San Diego has to do with geology. Apparently VA Medical Center San Diego (La Jolla) was built sufficiently close to a geological fault line that they couldn’t build a radiation “bunker” that would be safe in the event of an earthquake.

What’s next for me? A ton of thinking, reflecting, and reevaluating.

Enough for now. I’m spent.

Month 86 – Struggling

First things, first. I’m struggling to thaw out after spending five days in frigid (-4° F / -20° C) Chicago with my sister and her family this past weekend. You may well be asking, “Who in their right mind flies from San Diego to Chicago in January?!?” Sadly, that would be me.

I contemplated returning for Christmas but had sticker shock on the cost of the airfare, so I opted to return for my birthday last week at a quarter of the cost. This birthday was one of those annoying milestone birthdays—the 30th anniversary of my 30th birthday—and that definitely warranted an appropriate celebration. Of course, anyone in our situation knows that any birthday you’re around to celebrate is a good birthday.

But what I’m really struggling with is this whole notion of recurrence and what to do about it.

I’d like to think that throughout my life I’ve been a generally optimistic, my glass is half full kind of guy, but one with a healthy dose of reality attached to that optimism. Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and recognize the inevitable. I understand the value of a positive attitude, however, I’m increasingly finding that I have a diminishing tolerance of false optimism. “You got this. You’re going to kick cancer’s ass!” Really? Are you sure about that? How do you know? And at what cost? The $109,989.11 invested in my prostatectomy (the real number, mostly paid by the insurance company) doesn’t seem to be paying off.

The costs that I’m talking about aren’t just financial, either. There are emotional and physical costs as well.

With salvage radiation therapy (SRT)—the only option that still has a curative potential—there’s the risk of increased incontinence, loss of sexual function, bowel control issues, and fatigue during the treatments. Chatting with other patients in online forums or through their own blogs, some of these issues don’t manifest themselves until well after the SRT treatments end. And all of this for a 30%-55% chance of having no evidence of disease five or six years after SRT ends.

With androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) (hormone therapy), there’s the loss of libido and sexual function, mood swings impacting relationships, hot flashes, loss of muscle mass, increased risk of osteoporosis, and significant depression. Of course, ADT is not curative, so you get to suffer through those substantial side effects for a longer period because ADT prolongs your life.

It’s easy to get excited when you see your PSA plummet after starting ADT, as it impacts those androgen-dependent cancer cells. But guess what? There are also androgen-independent cells floating around that the ADT won’t impact at all, and it’s those cells that will start driving the PSA back up again and that will ultimately kick your ass.

Being a data-driven numbers guy, I’m also struggling with how to quantify these potential impacts on quality of life.

When you’re in an online or even in-person support group, you have to remember that there’s a self-selection bias taking place that will skew your perspective to the bad. Think about it. Almost everyone who’s in the group is there because they’re at some stage of dealing with this disease and having issues that need answers. Who you don’t see are those patients who are outside of the group who have success stories in dealing with their cancer and have simply stepped away from that chapter of their life.

For me, I want to know the ratio of who’s in the group versus those who are outside the group. Is it like an iceberg with 10% of the patients in the group being the visible ones and 90% of the success stories out of sight? Is it 50-50? 30-70? 60-40? Knowing the answer to that helps me understand the risks better.

I’ve stumbled across a few studies that talk about the likelihood of potential side effects from SRT but I would like to see more. The risks do seem to be relatively low from what I recall and from what my doctor is telling me, but forgive me if I’m skittish about accepting even low risk given where I’m at. (My surgeon forewarned me that there was a 20% chance the cancer would return; I guess I’m just not feeling all that lucky at the moment given my track record.)

Similarly, with ADT, it seems that most everyone suffers some form of side effects, but each person is impacted differently. Again, the numbers guy in me would love to see some sort of study that says, “While on ADT, my quality of life has been reduced by __% in each of the following areas…” I’ve heard patients say that they are “just a shell of the person I was once” or that the ADT has them remaining in bed 20 hours a day. Of course, there are others who seem to have only mild side effects with negligible impact on their daily lives. What’s the distribution like between those two extremes? Knowing the answer to that would be very helpful in decision making.

Given all that, I’m struggling with one more thing, and it may scare or even offend some readers.

“You’ve got plenty to live for. You need to fight. You need to be strong. You need to be a warrior and defeat this disease,”—all things that I’ve heard along the way. There’s this pervasive attitude that other patients, family members, and the healthcare system have that we must do everything we can to go on living for as long as we can at all costs.

Why?

Please don’t panic and think that I’m ready to check out tomorrow. I’m not. There is plenty to live for, and that is precisely why I ask the question.

Is being a shell of yourself and staying in bed 20 hours a day really living, or is it merely existing? Would you rather live a more full, active life for 8-10 years, or merely exist for 20 years?

What about the impact on your significant other and those closest to you? Yes, they’ll be by your side every step of the way. Do you think they would rather remember your last years as being present and engaged for 8-10 years, or withdrawn, moody, depressed, and barely capable of functioning for 20 years?

What about the financial impact on your family? Would you rather take a few bucket list trips with your significant other and family in your remaining 8-10 years, or would you rather take out a second mortgage on your home to pay for the drugs and latest technology tests that will keep you existing for 20 years, placing a financial burden on those who survive you?

Before you send me all sorts of hate mail, I know those are extreme examples and that there are many shades of gray between the extremes, but, in the absence of studies or data that mitigate those examples, that’s what’s rattling around inside my analytical, pragmatic mind at the moment—right or wrong. It’s just the way I’m wired. The good news is that I have time to find those studies and data that hopefully will give me the information I feel I need to make decisions going forward.

It takes strength to go through the radiation, ADT, and chemotherapy if that’s the path that you choose. It also, however, takes strength to say, “No. I’d rather live without those debilitating side effects for as long as I can, even if it means it will be for a shorter period of time.”

Thirteen years ago, my mother was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the incurable cancer associated with asbestos exposure. She was given the option to participate in some clinical trials that may have extended her life three to twelve months, but she refused. “I don’t want to be someone’s pin cushion when the end result will be the same.” She wanted to retain control over her life for as long as she could, and she did so to the best of her ability. Sadly, though, it was only a matter of months before she died, but she went out on her own terms.

That’s how you kick cancer’s ass.

I would like to think that I’ll be able to do the same.


Just a note. Because I knew I would be traveling, I wrote this post over a week ago. While I was in Chicago, a fellow prostate cancer patient, Mark Bradford, replied to a question in an online support group, and it’s complementary to the topic of this post. The question posed was, “At what point do you get tired of fighting?” He replied:

I dislike framing this as a fight. You have a disease, and you seek treatment for [it] till you decide to stop. Being in treatment is not fighting and stopping treatment is not giving up. I was inoperable from the beginning and stage 4 soon after. My outcome was certain, so my priority was quality of life over quantity. I did HT [hormone therapy] until it stopped working, and cannabis oil throughout. I refused chemo as it would not cure me or significantly extend my life. Don’t let anyone say you’re giving up if you decide it’s time to stop treatment. I could not afford alternatives, so my choices were limited. If you have the means, do whatever seems right to you. But accepting reality is not giving up.

I don’t think that I could agree more with Mark’s comment about framing this as a fight and about being in treatment or stopping treatment.

Mark is nearing the end of his life, and you can read his very poignant blog, God’s 2 by 4: Mark Bradford’s Cancer Journal.

Another patient, Dan Cole, answered simply and succinctly: “Live the life you choose to live. That is winning the fight.”

I know I’m getting way ahead of where I should be given my current status but, if nothing else, this disease certainly causes you to prematurely contemplate your own mortality.

Life After Radical Prostatectomy: 84 Months Later

So it’s been 84 months since my radical prostatectomy. How am I doing?

Status

With my PSA increasing steadily over the last two years to the point where it’s now at 0.10 ng/ml, it appears that I’m on the path to recurrence. Needless to say, that’s not the outcome that I had in mind when I started this journey, but my surgeon did warn that approximately 20% of prostatectomy patients have the cancer return.

Emotions

My visit to the doctor in December went just as I expected it would, with one exception. I left the office feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of me. This whole notion of recurrence took on a whole new meaning when the doctor suggested that we’re going to have to start thinking about radiation in the future. It’s becoming real again. Since then, I’ve been doing okay. Not great. Not horrible. Okay.

Incontinence

I remain “dry” 98% of the time. There have been a few very long days at work where my body tired and, combined with the physical exertion at the end of the day, I was a bit more prone to leak. Rarely do I need to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night—I can last 6-7 hours most nights.

Sexual Function

I continue to do so-so in the ED department. Remember, I have only one nerve bundle remaining, but I can get an 80%–90% erection most of the time. Some days are better; others are worse.

I do find that my libido is still there, and there are times through the day where I can feel things stirring down below. Not enough to obtain a natural erection—those days are gone—but enough that with a little stimulation, it would be much easier to achieve an erection.

Summary

Recurrence is the fear of every cancer patient because now your options become more limited and the costs of dealing with it—emotional, physical, and financial—begin to increase significantly. It’s time that I start seriously preparing for the trip down this fork in the road. The good news is that I have time with my PSA doubling time as long as it is.

Day 2,460 – The Day After

It’s Saturday morning, I’m up, and the birds are chirping outside the window. All good things.

The other good thing is that, for now, I’m remarkably at peace with last night’s PSA results. There’s no anger. No sadness. No real fear. That’s a good thing, too. Wasting emotional energy won’t do anything to change the result.

Another good thing is that it’s taken two years for my PSA to get to this point, and it may take another two years before it hits the traditional 0.2 ng/ml recurrence threshold. That’s time, and time is a good thing.

So what’s next?

My appointment with my doctor isn’t until 12 September and we’ll have a lengthy discussion then. I’m okay with the delay; it allows me time to put together my questions and concerns.

One of the concerns that I will raise yet again is the PSA level at which recurrence is defined. For years, the 0.2 ng/ml threshold has been the accepted standard. However, based on more recent studies, it’s becoming increasingly accepted in the prostate cancer world that salvage treatment should start much earlier.

Studies out of UCLA and Johns Hopkins suggested that a PSA of 0.03 ng/ml using the ultrasensitive PSA test can be predictive of recurrence. In that case, I’m about 18-24 months behind the 8-ball. Another study out of Germany released in May 2017 suggested recurrence be defined at 0.1 ng/ml, which I’m just shy of (time for one more Maß of beer at Oktoberfest!). And just to prove that I’m not nuts obsessing over the definition of biochemical recurrence, a somewhat dated research paper (2007) showed “a total of 145 articles contained 53 different definitions of biochemical recurrence for those treated with radical prostatectomy.” [Emphasis added.] No wonder there’s confusion among us patients!

You can see why, then, it’s so confusing and frustrating when recurrence is being defined by different groups as anywhere between 0.03 ng/ml and 0.2 ng/ml and your numbers are smack-dab in the middle of that range. Either my cancer is back or it’s not. It just depends on who you ask.

For my own sanity at this point, it’s just easier for me to accept the idea that the cancer is back, period. I can’t keep going on the emotional roller coaster ride of “Is it or isn’t it?” Given two years’ worth of upward-trending data points when there shouldn’t be any PSA at all, it’s a fairly safe bet that the cancer is back. I genuinely don’t think I’m getting ahead of myself and, if I’m proven wrong at some point in the future, I’ll eat my words and we’ll have one hell of a party. (Oktoberfest, anyone?)

Treatment options for me include salvage radiation therapy (SRT), androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) (hormone therapy), a combination of both and, perhaps chemotherapy. There are also newer options out there that I need to get more familiar with. Of course, there’s always the option to do nothing, too (it’s not as crazy as you think).

Salvage Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy usually targets the prostatic bed—where the prostate used to be—on the assumption that that’s where the residual cancer cells are hanging out. But the insidious thing about prostate cancer is that microscopic cells could be anywhere in the body and never get picked up by any scans or imaging. You can blast the crap out of your prostatic bed—risking increased incontinence, complete impotence, and bowel control issues—but not get all the cancer. In fact, one study shows that only 38% of SRT patients are disease-free at five years after their radiation therapy. Other studies put the number at around 50%. SRT can be curative, however, in those patients where it worked.

I’ve also seen conflicting guidance about SRT. On the one hand, “men with Gleason scores of 7 or lower, no cancer found in their seminal vesicles and lymph nodes, and increases in PSA several years after surgery were more likely to have a local recurrence of cancer—which means their cancer may still be cured with external-beam radiation to the prostate bed, where some residual cancer cells may be hiding.” (Walsh, 2nd ed. 381) I fit all of those requirements and would be a candidate for SRT.

On the very next page in Walsh, however, it states, “Radiation was also not likely to help men who had negative surgical margins. This is logical…because patients with negative margins whose PSA persists after surgery are more likely to have residual disease outside the prostatic bed, as opposed to those whose margins were positive at surgery, where disease is likely to remain in the area (and thus can be treated with radiation).” I had negative margins. The one thing that troubles me in that passage is the word “persists” because it implies the patients’ PSAs never went to undetectable after the surgery like mine did. That may make a difference in applicability.

Then there’s this little tidbit of information from the New Prostate Cancer Infolink: “There is an open controversy as to whether salvage radiation therapy, even if given after biochemical recurrence (a confirmed PSA ≥ 0.2 ng/ml), translates to a survival benefit. Fewer than a third of patients with a post-prostatectomy biochemical recurrence experienced systemic progression, and it takes a median of 8 years for distant metastatic progression, and 13 years for mortality to occur, according to a Johns Hopkins study (by Pound et al.).”

Androgen Deprivation (Hormone) Therapy

Prostate cancer feeds off of testosterone, and androgen deprivation therapy is a means of starving the cancer cells of testosterone. It’s the equivalent of chemical castration. There are two types of ADT: one stops the production of testosterone and the other stops the cancer cells from absorbing the testosterone. But here’s the kicker: there are androgen-independent cancer cells out there that will not be affected at all by either therapy, and they’ll just keep growing. ADT is not a cure; it only prolongs life.

ADT has some nasty side effects: depression, fatigue, hot flashes, anxiety, increased risk for other diseases (diabetes, cardiac issues), weight gain, osteoporosis, loss of libido, irritability, and others. Some of these side effects are so debilitating in some patients that they can no longer work and have difficulty functioning in their daily lives. (Yes, that’s a worse case scenario, but from my anecdotal observations of ADT patients online, side effects do have a significant impact on many of them.)

Another option to eliminate the majority of testosterone production is through surgical castration (gulp!). That may reduce some of the side effects, but not all.

Lastly, there’s debate as to when to start ADT and how to administer it. Some argue that you should start early to slow the growth; others argue that you wait until the end so that it can be helpful in tumor and pain management; yet others argue between whether it should be administered continuously or intermittently. Interestingly, studies have shown there is no statistical difference in outcome whether you start ADT early or late—the result is the same. (Walsh, 2nd ed. 473, 476-477) The only difference is that, if you start early, you suffer from the side effects for a much longer period.

Doing Nothing

Of course, the last option of doing nothing has some merit, too.

I’m not keen on being radiated, especially if we don’t know without a high degree of certainty that the cancer is still in the prostatic bed. I mean, really, if I’m going to risk peeing and pooping in my pants and never having an erection again for the rest of my life (perhaps slightly exaggerated) for just a 38% chance that I’ll be cured… That requires some thought.

The same thing with starting ADT early. If you’re going to be depressed, curled up in a bed 20 hours a day, unable to work or function just so you can extend your life for a few months or years, and the outcome is going to be the same as if you started ADT late, is that really worth it? Is that living?

None of us are getting out of here alive, and doing nothing isn’t “giving up.” In fact, when the side effects of the treatment may be worse than the disease itself, I view doing nothing as a way to say, “F–k cancer!” If I can squeeze a whole lot of living into the next 10-15 years without side effects of treatment impacting my quality of life and preventing me from truly living, why wouldn’t I do that? Sure, it’s a crappy hand that I’ve been dealt, but I’ll just come to terms with it and play it out. Again, none of us are getting out of here alive, and the notion of extending life at all costs just for the sake of extending life doesn’t sit well with me. Quality over quantity is important to me, and I’m sure there’s a balance in there somewhere.

A study done in 2005 at Johns Hopkins looked at various factors—Gleason score, PSA doubling time, and time from surgery to the return of PSA—and determined the likelihood that you will not die from prostate cancer based on those measures. Based on my numbers (Gleason 7, PSA DT more than 10 months, and return of PSA more than 3 years after surgery), I have a 99% chance of being around in 5 years; a 95% chance of being around in 10 years; and an 86% of being around in 15 years. (Walsh, 2nd ed., 386-390) Again, what’s not clear from that summary is what, if any, treatments patients had during that time. Bottom line: I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

Have I come to a decision? Of course not. It’s far too early and there are far too many conversations that need to be had with medical teams, and much more research to do. It will also be interesting to see if we stick to the four-month PSA test cycle or increase the frequency now. Based on my last conversations with the VA doctor, I suspect that we’ll keep to the four month cycle and consider acting once the PSA hits the 0.15 mark or so. (They’re pretty tied to the 0.2 ng/ml number.)

The one thing I want to understand much better is what percent of patients are impacted by the treatment side effects and to what degree. I’ve already got a decent idea—the numbers are relatively small—but I need to zero in on that in my research.

One last bit of good news. Advances are being made in prostate cancer research every day, and perhaps there’s something in the pipeline that will be of use in the near future.

At least now you have a better idea of what’s ahead and how my pea-sized brain is processing all of this at the moment.

It’s now well into the evening here in San Diego (took a break in the middle of the day) and time to figure out where those chirping birds went to escape the heat. That, or plan a trip to Oktoberfest.

[I hope I didn’t offend or scare anyone.  I also respect each and every person’s decision for their own treatment options because what they chose is right for them and their personal circumstances.]