Oligometastatic Prostate Cancer

There’s a mouthful for you.

I had seen the term bantered about in one of the online support groups that I participate in, and one of the members posted a link to a video [below] put together by the Prostate Cancer Research Institute featuring Dr. Eugene Kwon from the Mayo Clinic. While this may be old news to some, it was new to me, and it was definitely worth the 29 minutes to watch—I learned a lot.

First, oligo means scant or few, and when cancer metastasizes, it doesn’t metastasize throughout your entire body all at once. It’s not like throwing the switch on the national Christmas tree so your whole body lights up in a scan. It starts small and spreads from there. The hypothesis is that, if you treat those early oligometastatic locations, you are much more likely to have a successful outcome. As Dr. Kwon says, it’s a lot easier to kill something small than it is to kill multiple resistant larger tumors.

Second, imaging technology has now advanced to the point where those oligometastatic sites can be identified for treatment. Interestingly, in Dr. Kwon’s experience, only 30% of the cancer that comes back is found locally in the prostate bed. To me, that is hugely important. (For the remaining cancer, 54% is distant metastases and, in 16% of the cases, the metastases are both distant and local.)

The current standard of care is to start salvage radiation therapy (SRT) without the benefit of advanced imaging, zapping the crap out of the prostate bed, with an apparent seven in ten chance that it won’t be effective. And, as an added bonus, you get those potential life-long side effects from the radiation.

Of course, after (or in conjunction with) SRT is androgen deprivation therapy (ADT). It’s palliative in nature and only prolongs life with even more side effects.

Dr. Kwon asserts that, if you go after those early oligometastatic sites—surgically removing “hot” lymph nodes or spot-radiating affected bones—those treatments can be more curative in nature. Curative is certainly better than palliative.

You can rest assured that I’ll be investigating more of this in the future and discussing it with my doctor in April.

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.

Day 2,596 – Doctor Visit

I met with my doctor this afternoon to review my increasing PSA results, and it went just about as expected. There’s increasing concern, but things are progressing slowly enough that we can continue on the four month test cycle for now. That means I’ll be doing this all over again in April.

There were a few reality check moments in the conversation, though. I’ll get to those in a moment.

One thing I need to learn to do is shut up—at least for the first part of the meeting with the doctor. I’m not very good at letting the doctor talk and offer up his thoughts and recommendations and then ask the questions that I have. I just launch into a barrage of questions based on the research that I’ve done and assault the poor guy. On a positive note, he really didn’t dispute anything that I told him nor did he tell me that I was completely out to lunch on certain issues.

We reviewed the success rate for SRT, with various studies showing it to be 35%-55% effective at being progression-free at 5 or 6 years. (Here’s one.) We also discussed the potential side effects of SRT, and he did seem to believe that the risks were lower than I thought they may be.

The conundrum of starting SRT early versus knowing where to radiate based on imaging came up as well. My sense was that he’d prefer to start SRT while the PSA is less that 0.2 ng/ml, and certainly before it reaches 0.5 ng/ml, assuming that the cancer remained in the prostate bed. Doing so, he said, offers the best chance for success. He suggested that, if we wait until it would be detectable on even the most sensitive imaging (which can’t detect anything reliably until the PSA hits the 1.5-2.0 range), that radiation would do little if any good at that point, as the cancer will likely have spread. Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) would be the treatment option of choice at that point, and ADT is not curative. It only prolongs life (with substantial side effects impacting quality of life).

The reality check moment for me came with his comment about waiting too long to the point where SRT wouldn’t be effective, and that ADT would be my primary treatment option. That really was an, “Oh, shit,” moment for me. It’s very easy to sit here and speculate how I will act in hypotheticals, but at some point in the future, I am going to have to make real world decisions that affect my longevity and quality of life.

Based on my slow PSA doubling time (around 16 months), if my PSA progresses at its current rate, I’ll have 12 to 28 months to think about this and make my decision, based on whether I want to act if my PSA is around 0.15 or let it go all the way to 0.20. (See my “decision zone” in yellow below—yes, I had to geek out in my spreadsheet once again.) If I want to wait until it’s all the way to 0.5, I’ll have even more time.

Of course, one option is to do nothing. A study in 1999 showed that it took, on average, 8 years after PSA levels began to rise to reach metastasis, and another 5 years after metastasis to death.

The bottom line is that this is becoming increasingly real and that there will be some tough decisions in the next year or two. Of course, those decisions are mine and mine alone, and will be based on a variety of factors, not least of which will be my risk tolerance and any treatment’s impact to quality of life.

On that happy note, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy 2018! 🙂


Thanks, too, to those who took time to answer my questions in my salvage radiation therapy survey a few weeks ago. Your insights were quite helpful to me.

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.]