Month 107 – Looking Ahead

A little over a week ago, I hopped online around 10 p.m., checked my latest PSA results, and wrote my last blog post. None of that made for a good bedtime story.

The next day, I was exhausted from not sleeping well after receiving the news—so exhausted that I skipped out from work about an hour and a half early so I could go home and rest. Ever since then, I’ve been fine. I’ve accepted the new number and the fact that, once again, the only thing that I can control is how I react to it. In my heart, I expected the number to go up from the last test, and it did.

I did take a little time to search for some newer articles about salvage radiation therapy but they, like the PSA results, didn’t make for good bedtime reading either, so I put that on hold for now. I’ll be working on my list of questions for the doctor on 22 October, and we’ll go from there.

I’m pretty sure the writing is on the wall that that salvage radiation is in my future. It will take a while to get appointments set up for the radiation oncologist and to do any imaging that we can, and when you throw in the approaching holidays, I just don’t see radiation starting before the end of the year. I could be wrong. (Or, if things do happen quickly, I may just force the start to the beginning of the new year. Who wants to be getting zapped through the holidays? Seriously.)

In the mean time, I’m doing okay. Really. Just one appointment and test result at a time…

Day 3,248 – PSA Results

I jumped the gun and got my PSA test done about a week earlier than I planned. I had a  appointment scheduled on Monday to follow-up on my thumb surgery back in February , and I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and get the blood drawn after my appointment.

About 9:00 a.m., the doctor that I had my 1:30 p.m. appointment with called to check in and see how I was doing and if I really needed to come in. “How’s your thumb?” “Still attached and working,” I replied. After a brief discussion in more detail, we mutually agreed that there was no need for me to come into the office.

That kind of put a damper on my getting two birds with one stone, but I decided that I would go to the lab anyway, as I had already planned the afternoon off. It just made sense.

I wish I hadn’t.

My PSA took a considerable jump up to 0.16 ng/ml. I wasn’t expecting that.

PSA 20190930

The trend function on my spiffy spreadsheet thought it would come in around 0.137 ng/ml so that’s kind of where I had prepared myself to be mentally.

I used the Memorial Sloan Kettering PSA Doubling Time calculator to recalculate my PSA doubling time (it uses values of only 0.10 ng/ml and above), and my PSADT dropped from 155.6 months to 43.1 months. Still a respectable number, but definitely moving in the wrong direction.

Needless to say, this sucks.

My appointment with the urologist is on 22 October and we’ll definitely talk about imaging possibilities and ask for another referral back to a radiation oncologist to discuss salvage radiation therapy.

Crap.

Day 3,060 – PSA Results: WTF?!?

Okay. Sorry to use the vernacular, but what the f*ck?!? My PSA went down from 0.13 ng/ml to 0.10 ng/ml!

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. But, seriously, WTF?

This is great news, but when you get yourself psyched up for yet another increase (after 3.5 years of pretty steady increases), it certainly plays games with your mind when the number goes in the opposite direction in a substantial way. Did I ever mention that I hate this disease?

I can’t wait to hear what the urologist has to say about this on 18 April. It should be entertaining.

So that’s that. Go figure.

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Day 2,948 – PSA Results

My slight sense of optimism that I gained after my last consistent PSA result was shattered at four o’clock this morning when I hopped online in a fit of insomnia to check my PSA test results from this week. I’m back on the upward climb again with a PSA of 0.13 ng/ml.

PSA 20181203 clean

My spiffy spreadsheet predicted a value of 0.129 ng/ml, so it wasn’t unexpected. Just my hope for a more stable PSA went out the window.

Obviously, I’ve got some serious thinking to do in the weeks ahead.

The predictive part of my spreadsheet shows the increase will continue at a rate of about 0.011 ng/ml every four months. In April, I would be at 0.140 and in August at 0.151. Is that rate slow enough to delay any decision about salvage radiation therapy a while longer? I don’t know.

Do I get involved with the imaging trial at UCLA to see if we can determine where the cancer is before undergoing salvage radiation therapy? I don’t know.

Or do I just say screw it and start the salvage radiation therapy in early 2019? I don’t know.

Stay tuned for the answers. That, or for pictures of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand.

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 2,745 – 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 90 – A Date with the R.O.

The week after my visit with the urologist last month, I had to relocate my office at work temporarily while the facilities team upgrades the HVAC system in our permanent offices. As I was setting up my new desk, I glanced up and saw this pinned to the bulletin board, apparently left by the previous occupant:

IMG_20180501_164755468_HDR (1)

Coincidence? Yep. But the timing couldn’t have been better.

I do believe that a positive outlook is helpful in situations like this, but with a healthy dose of reality thrown in for good measure. We can all “do our worst” in combating this disease, but the reality is that the cancer is in the driver’s seat. Yes, we can be proactive in doing our research and selecting our path, but we’re always reacting to the latest test result or the efficacy of the last treatment option.

Me doing my “worst” in the last three weeks has been slogging my way through the Veterans Affairs (VA) administrative logjams to get my appointment scheduled with the radiation oncologist. I finally got my appointment set up yesterday.

In a nutshell, the urologist forgot to hit the “submit” button for the referral. It took three weeks of emails and phone calls to figure that out, but we made it. The urologist was truly apologetic in his email to me. I get it. We’ve all made similar blunders. No harm, no foul.

My appointment is next Thursday, 17 May 2018, but there was a surprising twist in it.

All of my appointments with the urologists have been at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla (San Diego), and I was fully expecting my appointment with the radiation oncologist to be there as well. After all, it is the preeminent VA medical facility on the West Coast. Silly me.

The appointment is at Naval Medical Center San Diego. The twist? I work at Naval Medical Center San Diego—seventy-five steps (I counted) from the radiation oncology department. I pass the department twice a day on my way to or from my car, and I always thought to myself as I passed, “Someday I may be in a place like this.” Little did I know that I would be in that specific place!

Of course, the first thing we need to do is answer a boatload of questions before making the decision to get zapped. That’s the purpose of this initial consult, so I’ll be working on that list this weekend and next week.

Stay tuned.

Day 2,722 – No Probability for Me

I’m one of those people who always thinks of a snappy comeback—three days after the conversation.

Over the weekend, I reflected on my conversation with the doctor last Thursday, and one of the things that I failed to ask was what probability he would assign to the notion that my increasing PSA is attributable to benign residual prostate tissue instead of returning cancer. I sent an email that asked specifically:

I fully understand that none of us have a crystal ball, but the one thing that I failed to ask Dr. is what he thought the probability of this being benign residual tissue was. Is it 5%? 25%? 50%? His experience gave him the insights to make the comment, so his experience may also be able to measure the likelihood as well.

To which he replied:

I’m afraid I am not able to assign a percentage likelihood to the chance that any residual tissue is benign. I can only really extrapolate from the rate of change in the PSA. The longer it took to be detectable and the slower it rises, the more it seems likely to be a bit of benign tissue. Either way, it is those lab values and their pattern that will help to guide treatment. If it rises quickly then will treat, since a) that pattern is more likely cancer, and b) if it’s not cancer it is acting like cancer and the stakes are too high to disregard even with a high % prediction at this point that the tissue is benign.

Hope that helps!

Dr.

His comment, “…b) if it’s not cancer it is acting like cancer and the stakes are too high to disregard even with a high % prediction at this point that the tissue is benign,” seems to be all over the place and contradicts his opening statement of not being “able to assign a percentage likelihood.” Hmmm…

So that was an interesting little exercise. I really didn’t expect him to come back with a specific number, but I thought I’d ask anyway. I don’t know that his answer convincingly persuades me one way or the other, but it does allow me to throw a tad more weight behind his theory that this is benign. A tad.

Bottom line: The only thing we know with any certainty is that my PSA continues to climb. Beyond that, it’s all a freaking guessing game.

On a related note, I’ve yet to hear from the radiation oncology department with an appointment for me. If I don’t hear from them tomorrow or Thursday (a crazy day at work for me), I’ll try to call on Friday to get on the calendar.


UPDATE:

About an hour after posting this, I came across this little gem of an article from 2005:

The presence of benign prostatic glandular tissue at surgical margins does not predict PSA recurrence

Key points:

We conclude that the presence of benign prostatic tissue at the surgical margins is not associated with adverse prognostic features and does not have prognostic relevance; therefore, we do not advocate reporting the presence of benign prostatic tissue at the inked margins as a standard part of the surgical pathology report on prostatectomy specimens.

Because benign epithelium at surgical margins is not correlated with postoperative PSA rises, postoperative PSA increases should in most cases continue to be considered “biochemical failure”.

Obviously, that’s not good news and certainly warrants more research.

This article from 2013 calls a few things into question:

Benign Prostate Glandular Tissue at Radical Prostatectomy Surgical Margins

Key point:

The most interesting finding of this study is the identification of Benign Glands at the Surgical Margins (BGM) after both Open Radical Prostatectomy (ORP) and Robot Assisted Laproscopic Radical Prostatectomy (RALRP) was not associated with recurrence, either biochemical or clinical, during a median follow-up interval of 49 months after ORP and 28 months after RALRP.

Extending followup further should clarify whether BGM leads to low, detectable levels of PSA that may not meet threshold for defining biochemical failure. This may be particularly relevant with the widespread availability of ultra-sensitive PSA assays. The routine use of ultra-sensitive tests after treatment has not been validated and remains controversial in clinical practice, and may be particularly true in patients at low risk of disease recurrence and potentially in those with BGM.

Within our cohort, longer follow-up may reveal detectable levels of PSA associated with BGM that may not reflect actual prostate cancer recurrence but rather a clinically benign elevation of PSA.

In other words, there’s more research to be done.

Day 2,703 – PSA Results

The bad news: My PSA continued its upward climb to 0.11 ng/ml. The good news: The rate of increase remained constant (and is still quite slow).

The result is exactly where my spiffy spreadsheet said it would be, so I’m not overly surprised. All that’s left to do now is wait for my appointment with the urologist on 19 April. I’ll have to do my best to let him speak a little before I assault him with my already prepared list of questions.

This result reinforces my belief that it’s time to bring a radiation oncologist into the discussion so I can get his or her perspective on salvage radiation therapy, especially regarding the risks of long-term side effects impacting quality of life and the likelihood of success.

More to come…

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