Day 3,270 – Doctor Visit

Tuesday’s meeting with the urologist was a bit anticlimactic. In a nutshell, we’re returning to the four-month test cycle and we’ll see what the next test will bring in late January or early February before we do anything.

The doctor had no explanation for the swings in my PSA level from 0.13 to 0.10 to 0.16 and reminded me that there could be a margin of error on the readings. (But he couldn’t quantify what that +/- error might be using the assay that they’re using.) He mentioned that riding a bike, other mild “trauma” to the pelvic region, or sexual activity before a PSA test could affect the results. That’s something that I already knew, so I make it a point to avoid any of that for at least a week before the blood sample is drawn to avoid introducing that variable to the picture.

He also reminded me that the historical definition of biochemical recurrence has been 0.20 ng/ml and suggested that it was premature to start thinking about salvage radiation therapy. Even so, he acknowledged that my PSA is definitely trending upward and worthy of continued monitoring so that it “doesn’t get away from us.” He suggested it would be fine to retest in six months; I opted for four.

One of the reasons that he was so comfortable with a longer test cycle and continued monitoring was my lengthy PSA doubling time. He also talked about the possibility that this could be residual benign prostate tissue left behind after the surgery that could be causing the PSA to increase again.

I filled him in on the Ga-68 PSMA PET/CT scan trial going on at UCLA and the option to shell out $2,800 to have the scan done outside of the trial. We talked a little about the successful detection rates at my PSA levels, to which he replied, “You know more about it than I do.”

We also spoke briefly about the potential long-term side effects of salvage radiation therapy, as well as the success rates of having no evidence of disease five years later. Nothing new was learned there.

On the whole, I’m generally on board with this approach—for now. But I will say that, mentally, I prepared myself for the meeting to go in a different direction, so I’m still processing that. If I’m perfectly honest, I’m a teeny bit less confident that waiting another four months is appropriate.

It’s as though I’m taking another step on a tight rope with each successive PSA test. The further out I go, the more the rope sways and it’s just a question of how long I can maintain my balance. Can I make it all the way across, or will I lose my balance and tumble into the abyss of metastasis?

Sure, I can opt to use my emergency safety harness—salvage radiation therapy—at any time, but that comes with costs potentially impacting quality of life: increased incontinence, loss of sexual function, scarring from radiation, etc. And—guess what?—at the end of it, I’ll be back on another tightrope taking another step every 3-6 months with new tests to monitor the effectiveness of salvage radiation. (And there’s a 30%-70% chance that I’ll fall off that tight rope into the abyss, too, depending on which study you look at.)

The trick is knowing when to decide whether you should keep walking on the original tight rope or that it’s time to jump into the safety harness. That decision is complicated by your coaches on the ground yelling conflicting things at you. Coach Radiation Oncologist is yelling, “Use the harness!” and Coach Urologist is yelling, “Keep walking!” Your own mind, filled with reliable information you gathered from Dr. Google, is adding to the confusion. It can be maddening to try and sort through it all and make the best decision possible.

That thought led to the last point of discussion with the urologist on Tuesday. He acknowledged that the field of prostate cancer research is a very dynamic one, and that there’s often conflicting guidance as new therapies are being tested and new discoveries are made. He also reinforced that prostate cancer is an insidious disease in how it behaves and how challenging it can be to treat it.

Prostate cancer is not an “easy cancer.” Far from it.

Day 3,260 – Research Articles on Prostate Cancer

One of the cool things about working in a hospital is that I can access full versions of some of the scholarly articles on prostate cancer that are normally blocked to the public by their publishers. At the end of the day today, I pulled the full versions of each of these articles for a little light bedtime reading about salvage radiation therapy, toxicities, and imaging:

Long-term Outcome of Prostate Cancer Patients Who Exhibit Biochemical Failure Despite Salvage Radiation Therapy After Radical Prostatectomy.

Improved toxicity profile following high-dose postprostatectomy salvage radiation therapy with intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

Long-term outcomes after high-dose postprostatectomy salvage radiation treatment.

Multimodality Imaging of Prostate Cancer.

Salvage radiotherapy after radical prostatectomy: Long-term results of urinary incontinence, toxicity and treatment outcomes

Outcomes of salvage radiotherapy for recurrent prostate cancer after radical prostatectomy.

I skimmed a couple of them on the bus ride home this evening (as much as you can skim on a bouncing bus), and I’ll go through each in a little more detail before my appointment a week from tomorrow.

When I pull articles like this, I consider a few things when reading them:

  • When was the article published? Obviously, more recent is generally better, although you can’t discount data from earlier studies entirely.
  • What type of research was done? Was it a retrospective study of historical medical records or was it a full-blown trial?
  • How many patients were included in the study? Fewer patients (<100) may yield less reliable results than those that include several thousand.
  • Over what time period did the study look at patients? Studies that looked at records from the 1990’s into the early 2000’s will reflect the treatment options and technologies available at that time. Studies done more recently will reflect the impact of newer treatment options and technologies.
  • Who conducted or funded the study? Who’s conducting a study and how it’s paid for could, in theory, perhaps skew the results (e.g., Big Pharma wanting to push a new drug).

So I’ll be going through each article, gleaning whatever I think may be of value for the appointment, adding to my list of questions to be asked.

Please don’t ask me to share the full versions of the articles here or elsewhere. Not only am I cancer-averse, I’m litigation averse. I’m not keen on a copyright infringement lawsuit because I posted something on this blog/website that I didn’t have permission to do. 🙂

That said, I may try to summarize some of the findings in future posts, with full attribution of any quotes, of course.

Off to read a bedtime story or two…

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 3,175 – Unexpected Consult & Twisted Thinking

Last Thursday, a physician came into our office (keep in mind my office is in a hospital) and was asking about how to bring a volunteer on board to shadow him in radiation oncology. Of course, my ears picked up with the “radiation oncology” part of his request.

After explaining the process to bring his volunteer on board, I asked him if Dr. W was still in radiation oncology. Dr. W was the radiation oncologist that I saw in May 2018 to discuss my rising PSA, and he told me then that he planned on retiring in the next year or so. Dr. W had, in fact, retired according to Dr. B, the physician with the volunteer question.

Dr. B asked how it was that I knew of Dr. W, so I explained that I had the consult with him for getting zapped for recurrent prostate cancer. A bit to my surprise, Dr. B started asking a question or two and, the next thing you know, we’re having a ten minute consultation in the lobby of my office.

In a nutshell:

  • His threshold for starting salvage radiation therapy for recurrent prostate cancer was when the PSA hit 0.10 ng/ml.
  • He talked of how statistically the likelihood of the cancer being in my prostate bed is pretty high. In a tangential way, he implied that having positive margins confirms that the cancer is still in the prostate bed; having negative margins, as I did, makes things slightly less certain.
  • We had a very cursory conversation about imaging technologies, but my sense was that his view of the newer technologies was more optimistic than what I’ve read about their effectiveness at my PSA level.
  • He talked about how deciding to treat is a very personal decision and that there’s no right or wrong answer. But, with a PSA of 0.10, he said that I will be dealing with this again at some point in the future and, if I wait too long, the options for dealing with it become fewer.

At the end of the conversation, he was saying a treatment decision is also based on life expectancy and overall general health. Nothing new here. If I was 85 and had a cardiac condition, he wouldn’t recommend zapping; but if I’m younger and in generally good health, he would treat. “I would get treated if it were me.”

I thanked him profusely for taking the time to have a hallway consult when he was under no obligation to do so. I told him that I have another PSA test coming up at the beginning of October, and that we’ll see what that brings.


Now for the funny part and insights into how twisted my thinking can be at times…

Dr. B’s comment about life expectancy struck a chord with me because it’s something that I often joke about.

My father died at the age of 69 and his mother also died at the age of 69, so I’ve always joked that I’ll follow in their footsteps and die at 69, too. “It’s hereditary,” I’d say. Most would find it pretty morbid and tell me to knock it off.

If you’ve been reading this blog for longer than three minutes, you know I’m a numbers guy (see post title). So on the bus ride home after speaking to Dr. B, curiosity got the better of me. I wondered how freaky it would be if my father and grandmother lived the same number of days in their 69-year lives. When I got home, I ran the numbers.

I plugged their birth and death dates into the duration calculator that I use to calculate the day number of these impromptu posts and found that they didn’t live the exact same number of days, but it was close. Dad outlived Oma by 49 days.

You know I couldn’t just leave it there.

If I live as long as my grandmother, I’ll be checking out of Hotel California on 29 July 2027. If I live as long as dad, it will be 16 September 2027. If I follow Dad’s trend an outlive him by 49 days, it will be 4 November 2027.

And then I had my “Oh, shit!” moment.

I may have less time remaining than the amount of time that I’ve been running this blog—3,029 days (best case) vs. 3,175 days.

I began to wonder what I will do in those eight remaining years. If I have only one big trip a year, what are the eight places I want to go see? How many more times will I see the people important to me if we see each other only once ever 1-3 years? How much longer will I continue to work?

I know it’s cliché as hell, but it was a bit of a wake-up call to get me off my butt and doing more than I am right now. Nothing like having a deadline to motivate you, eh?

I also know that there are no guarantees. I could get hit by a car crossing the street tomorrow, or I could live until I’m 90. I don’t dwell on any of this, but it’s nice to be reminded—albeit in a twisted way—that none of us are getting out of here alive, no matter how hard we try to avoid the inevitable, and that the days we have left should be cherished and embraced, whether in ways big or small.

Oh. If I make it to 5 November 2027, everything from then on is icing on the cake. 🙂

A review of PET Imaging for Recurrent Prostate Cancer

This is a quite informative paper from Practical Radiation Oncology, giving a good overview of the newer imaging technologies being developed to identify the location of recurrent prostate cancer before beginning salvage radiation therapy.

Prostate cancer–specific PET radiotracers: A review on the clinical utility in recurrent disease

I’ll comment in a separate post on where my head is at after receiving my latest PSA results.

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 2,841 – 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.

 

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???