Conversations With Prostate Cancer Experts

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Imaging Metastatic Prostate Cancer

Dr. Eric Rohren is the chair of the department of radiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about imaging metastatic prostate cancer.

Subscribe to read Dr. Rohren’s comments on radium therapy + imaging. Members can read the interview in their March 2018 issue of Prostatepedia.

In terms of imaging, what kinds of scans can determine if a man has metastases (mets) anywhere in his body?

Dr. Eric Rohren: X-ray has been around for a long time and still has a role to play. It’s easy to obtain, it’s cheap, and it has low radiation exposure. We still rely on a good old-fashioned chest or bone X-ray, depending on the patient’s symptoms.

These days, most patients with any type of malignancy, and specifically prostate cancer, are managed in a couple of ways.

One way is a CAT scan. CAT scan is a 3-D imaging technique that uses X-rays that can take images of the body, chest, abdomen, and pelvis. Most patients with newly diagnosed prostate cancer or treated prostate carcinoma have undergone a CAT scan at some point in the course of their disease. CAT scans can show us the prostate gland, lymph nodes, liver, and many of the different organs where cancer may be hidden.

To supplement that, patients with prostate cancer often get a bone scan, which is a nuclear medicine technique. In a bone scan, we inject radioactive material that goes to the skeleton, and most strongly so in areas where there’s increased skeletal turnover, where something in the bone is inciting a reaction. It may go to benign things like healing fractures, arthritis, and various areas of injury. But the radioactive material also goes to areas of metastatic disease in the skeleton, and it localizes most particularly in those areas, lighting up on these bone scans.

Rather than just a particular region of the body, a bone scan shows us from the top of the head all the way down to the feet, which is nice. We get a look at the entire skeleton, and we can look for the little spots that are lighting up that may indicate the presence of metastatic disease in the skeleton.

CAT scans and bone scans are very widely used. A bone scan is a little bit better than a CAT scan in looking for these bone metastases, so the two really augment each other in detection of the disease.

Beyond these, we do have some newer imaging techniques coming into play. There’s a way of doing a bone scan with PET scanner. A PET scanner is another nuclear medicine technique that is more sensitive than a standard nuclear medicine camera, and it acquires a CAT scan at the same time. You can look at the images on the nuclear medicine technique overlaid on the CT scan to see where exactly the activity is and what it’s due to.

We can also use some agents with PET scanning to look at the skeleton. A so-called fluoride PET/CT bone scan seems to have many advantages over a conventional bone scan in terms of detecting smaller disease, more sites of disease, and things like that. MRI is also used in some cases.

Traditionally, MRI is used to evaluate specific areas, so if there’s pain in a particular area such as the skeleton,

MRI is a great way to do that. MRI is also used to look directly at the prostate gland and at the prostate bed after prostate surgery or after other therapy in the pelvis. It can be very good at detecting small volumes of disease. The problem with PET scanning and MRI scanning is that they are less accessible, although MRI is in most places now, and most major areas have access to a PET scanner.

Then there’s the issue of cost. Both techniques are costly. We need to determine if the added cost is justified by the additional information that those scans provide.

Beyond these techniques, the exciting thing for nuclear medicine is the new developments on the horizon. As we discover more about the molecular nature of disease, why cancer forms, and what makes and defines a cancer cell, those molecular discoveries can be translated into imaging studies that we can then use with PET scanning to be even more sensitive for detection of disease.

For example, there are several new molecular tracers in the United States that are approved for imaging of prostate cancer. Choline and Axumin (FACBC) are both agents approved in the United States for use with PET/CT.

Internationally, people are moving to a compound called prostate surface membrane antigen (PSMA) that can image prostate carcinoma. It seems to be even better than Choline or Axumin. The data is still a little bit undetermined at this point, but there’s a lot of excitement around these newer agents being able to seek out cancer in very small volumes anywhere it occurs in the body.

Then I guess the question becomes: when do you treat?

Dr. Rohren: Yes. That is very much the question. As we discover more and more sites of disease and smaller sites of disease, the question becomes: do we need to treat those aggressively or conservatively? We’re discovering new things about tumor biology, and we need to understand how that gets translated into the best appropriate therapy for patients.

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Advanced Imaging + Prostate Cancer

Dr. Phillip Koo is Division Chief of Diagnostic Imaging at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about advanced imaging + recurrent prostate cancer.

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Do you have any advice for men considering advanced imaging for prostate cancer?

Dr. Koo: We’ve been talking about better imaging tools for prostate cancer for years. When it comes to other cancers, we moved forward a great deal when FDG PET/CT became available. With prostate cancer, we’ve been stuck with CT and bone scans since the 1970s. They’re great tools. I don’t want to devalue what they’ve done for our patients since then, but we knew we could do better. Urologists and oncologists knew patients had metastatic disease, but our imaging tools limited detection.

We have new tools available to us in 2018. There is no question that costs are going to be higher, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring and pushing the envelope. The whole purpose is to improve overall survival and treatment for our patients. An ounce of diagnosis could be a pound of cure. If we could identify disease sooner, identify the right patient for these exams, and use them at the right time, then we could probably create treatment plans more appropriate for patients with better outcomes. It’s something that I firmly believe. There is so much potential here.

When radiology is practiced in a vacuum, it’s not as powerful as when it’s integrated into patient histories and treatment plans. Radiology is a very powerful tool. But we often think of it as a commodity, something that does not have any distinguishing value. That is a huge under-estimation of radiology.

When performed correctly in a multidisciplinary setting, with access to the medical record and physicians who are taking care of the patient, radiology unlocks information that can really impact care for patients with prostate cancer. And we are currently only scratching the surface. This will change as analytic tools continue to analyze bigger data sets that include imaging and clinical data. If a urologist determines that their patient needs imaging, they’re going to write a request for imaging that describes what type of test they want and why they need it.

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Patients often go to the closest facility. Convenience is important, but when it comes to certain tests or exams, I urge patients to seek out subspecialized radiology experts and facilities with the experience and expertise in the performance and

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Imaging + Prostate Cancer Recurrence

Dr. Phillip Koo is Division Chief of Diagnostic Imaging at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about imaging recurrent prostate cancer.

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Prostatepedi:Some imaging occurs when men are first diagnosed. When, after treatment, do they encounter these newer imaging techniques? After a high PSA reading? Or just a part of routine follow-up?

Dr. Philip Koo: That’s a really tough question because imaging has a role throughout the continuum of care for any prostate cancer patient. Screening currently isn’t done with imaging, but there are a lot of research studies looking at it.

Prostate MRI is most often used for the detection of local disease. Oftentimes, patients with a rising PSA and a negative standard biopsy might get an MRI or an MRI-guided biopsy.

Bone scans and CT scans are used to help detect metastatic disease. There are many different scenarios, but usually after patients are diagnosed with cancer, most will visit radiology if there is a suspicion for metastatic disease. If we refer back to the RADAR 1 paper published in 2014 by Dr. Dave Crawford in Urology (see Urology 2014 Mar; 83(3): 664-9), we talk about imaging patients at initial diagnosis and imaging those who are intermediate or high-risk. In those patients, we recommended a bone scan and a CT scan.

Patients who are biochemically recurrent may also be imaged. Again, MRI will often be used to look for locally recurrent disease. Bone scans and CT scans are used to look for metastatic disease.

What about some of the newer imaging techniques?

Dr. Koo: The newer techniques are exciting. In both the patient community and the scientific community, we’ve heard a lot about these tools over the past decade. They weren’t widely available, especially in the United States. These newer imaging tools are simply better, which is why there is so much excitement. They will pick up more sites of disease at lower PSA levels.

When we do detect sites of disease, they’re more specific. Our confidence that these sites are actually disease is higher than our confidence when we’re using traditional bone and CT scans. These tests perform at a higher level compared to standard imaging.

Another benefit to these new tools is that in one single exam, we’ll be able to detect soft tissue and bony disease.

How do these newer techniques change treatment? If you can pick up the disease at a lower PSA is that going to change how a doctor treats a man?

Dr. Koo: Yes. We will be able to detect disease sooner. Currently, these newer imaging techniques are used mostly in patients with biochemical recurrence. When a patient has biochemical recurrence and we see the PSA rise, our standard imaging techniques are often not good enough to detect metastatic disease. The problem is that the radiation oncologist or the urologist needs to decide how they want to treat the patient.

Using these newer tools, we can provide the urologist or radiation oncologist with better information about whether or not the disease has spread at the time of biochemical recurrence. If it has not, and the urologist can perform salvage cryotherapy or a radiation oncologist does salvage radiotherapy, we could potentially cure the patient.


Dr. Koo: You’re hitting the disease before it spreads, so theoretically yes. These newe imaging techniques do better, but we really need to prove why this is important and how this impacts care. The answers to these questions will solidify the utility and value of these imaging techniques for prostate cancer patients.

If a patient gets the Gallium-68 PSMA or Axumin scans will his local urologist or oncologist know what to do with that information?

Dr. Koo: Maybe. The problem is that all of this sounds great: we have a tool that can detect disease sooner, better, and more accurately. But then the more important question is what to do with that information and does it impact outcomes. If we don’t know, then what is the value of that imaging tool? We operate under the assumption that earlier detection is always better, but we’re learning that in a lot of diseases that is not always true.

We could be over-diagnosing and over-treating certain diseases. Whether it’s imaging, urology, radiation oncology, or oncology, it really is a team effort because we all bring something unique to the table. We really need to work together to make sure we come up with the best plan and the best answers.

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Cognitive Impairment + Prostate Cancer

Dr. Alicia Morgans is a medical oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in treating advanced prostate cancer and is particularly interested in addressing treatment side effects.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about cognitive impairment, stress, and prostate cancer treatment.

What role do you think medical oncologists traditionally play in anticipating that patients might have these kinds of struggles? What role do you think the medical oncologist should play?

Dr. Alicia Morgans: That is a tricky question. I think, in general, medical oncologists have a lot of things on their plates. They’re trying to balance all of the side effects of therapy, the reason for doing a particular therapy, the complications that a therapy can cause that are medically dangerous, as well as where we go next if this treatment fails. I don’t know that they always take the time to dig deeply into questions about cognitive function, depression, or anxiety unless those things are very clear because a patient is complaining about them himself or a caregiver says it is a huge issue.

Medical oncologists have very short patient visits, especially for followups, and have many things going on that they’re trying to work through with patients. These cognitive changes are not always at the top of their list. However, it’s a critical part of our job and something that I take the time to do because of both my personal experiences and the way that I think medical oncologists should practice. That is not to say anyone else is wrong, but it is a really important part of my practice. This is something that patients are living with day to day. It’s something that needs to be addressed and can negatively impact their quality of life.

A patient’s experience of his quality of life is what really matters at the end of the day. Length of life and quality of life, to me, are both critically important. If you are not thinking clearly or you’re severely depressed or anxious—about your job, financial toxicity, or dying— you can’t live your best life. Helping optimize quality of life during treatment for cancer is a pivotal part of what we do. That being said, I don’t criticize any of my colleagues for missing discussions on this or myself when I’m having a day and running an hour and a half late, but it is something we should strive to do.

Are there ways to circumvent problems with cognitive function, or is it just a matter of identifying them early on and getting patients the help they need?

Dr. Morgans: I don’t know if there’s necessarily a way to completely avoid them, but we might, with some of the research being done, identify patient populations or individual patients who might be most susceptible to some of these side effects based on their genetics or based on the way they metabolize certain drugs.

If we can identify who may be most sensitive, we might be able to steer those men away from certain treatments and toward other treatments or delay treatment if that’s in their best interest and is a clinically reasonable choice.

Our goal is to provide men with a balance of best quality of life and longest length of life.

What we can do now is ask questions of our patients to diagnose these issues. We can ask, “How’s your mood? Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling down?” We can figure out if they’re depressed or anxious.

If we talk to men and their caregivers about their daily life, we can treat these problems whether it is through pharmacologic therapy or counseling with a social worker, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.

We can treat depression and anxiety.

Loss in cognitive function is a little more challenging. I have referred patients to behavioral or cognitive therapy (similar to what is recommended for patients post-stroke) to give them strategies for dealing with memory loss or thinking problems. I’ve had some success with that approach, but I would say the standard approach to managing cognitive decline is still being defined. This is the work that I am trying to do, because we still need to confirm which tools are best for measuring cognitive change, and then we need methods to prevent or reverse these issues.

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Talking To Your Doctor About Side Effects

Dr. Alicia Morgans is a medical oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in treating advanced prostate cancer and is particularly interested in addressing treatment side effects.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about cognitive impairment, stress, and prostate cancer treatment.

Have you had any patients whose stories have impacted how you approach patient care or how you think about your role?

Dr. Alicia Morgans: The most poignant in my mind right now is my grandfather who recently passed away from advanced prostate cancer. I know we have spoken about him before. His passing really brought home to me how important it is to have a good medical oncologist, and how privileged we are as medical oncologists to share in this journey with our patients and their families. He was diagnosed at a late age with prostate cancer, but throughout his entire life, he had been averse to doctors and medical care. It was challenging for our family, and for me in particular, because by that time, I was already a prostate cancer specialist. We tried to help him understand that his doctors made recommendations to help him.

During his entire treatment history, I really felt very strongly and personally how important it is to balance quality of life with length of life for men with prostate cancer and their families. Living longer doesn’t mean living better for a lot of people. It’s really important for physicians to recognize that we can’t put our own beliefs about what is most important onto someone else. We have to listen to our patients so that we hear what is most important to them. That is the thing that is most clear in my mind right now.

As my grandfather approached the end of his life, we had to make difficult decisions for him that walked a fine line between length of life and quality of life. He made decisions that some people may not make. He chose not to undergo further therapy at a certain point, even though those therapies existed, because it didn’t make sense for him given his goals and preferences. That is what I think about as being most impactful when I meet with patients.

Do you think patients are often reluctant to have those kinds of conversations with their doctors?

Dr. Morgans: Absolutely. Those are not easy conversations to have. I would say that we were lucky in my grandfather’s situation. We were lucky because I’m persistent and just kept pushing him to speak his mind and let us know what was important to him. In many conversations with patients, I find it’s really important to wait and just be quiet. Let some space fill the room so that men who may be reluctant can take that next step and answer.

As physicians, many of us are so pressed for time that we are almost pressured in the way that we ask those kinds of questions. Just letting some space sit in the room can give men an opportunity to speak. The other thing that is important to do for men with prostate cancer is engage with their caregivers and loved ones, as long as the patients feel comfortable with this interaction. Sometimes caregivers will share things that men themselves don’t feel comfortable sharing. But once it’s out, the men can open up. They feel able to continue that conversation.

I guess some patients might not know how they feel or might have a difficult time expressing how they’re feeling.

Dr. Morgans: Absolutely. No one wants to feel weak. No one wants to admit that he’s not feeling like he did 10 years ago. Optimism is a huge part of feeling well too, and for some, admitting that we don’t feel as well as we did before can stand in the way of optimism.

I think it’s important for us as physicians and as caregivers to make it clear to people that it’s okay to express those feelings. A lot of times we have ways of making those symptoms better. If you’re able to express it, maybe there’s something we can do about it.

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Cancer + The Law

Monica Bryant, a cancer rights attorney, is part of the four-woman team behind Triage Cancer.

Prostatepedia spoke with Ms. Bryant about legal and employer issues facing prostate cancer patients.

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Are there some common legal issues for cancer patients?

Ms. Monica Bryant: Employment issues are an important topic that comes up frequently. We want to empower people to recognize that the law is a tool that they should use for their benefit. We don’t simply advocate that people sue their employers, but we want to get to people before there is an issue.

For example, in the United States, we have a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the things that the ADA provides for people with a cancer diagnosis is something called a “reasonable accommodation.” For someone who may be suffering from either long-term or late-term side effects and who wants to work through treatment or return to work after treatment, a reasonable accommodation allows them to get some assistance to remain in the workplace. The average American doesn’t necessarily know about that.

They usually don’t need to know about it, right?

Ms. Bryant: Right. Or they’re into their treatment, they haven’t accessed reasonable accommodations, and then their job performance suffers, so they are let go. We see such a scenario often where people feel they’ve been discriminated against. But when we peel back the layers, it’s not necessarily discrimination, it’s that their job performance has suffered, and they haven’t accessed the benefits that might be available for them.

We want to give people this information so that they can go to their employer empowered and access resources available to them, keep their jobs, and keep being the valued employee they want to be. People shouldn’t suffer as a result of not knowing what’s out there.

What kinds of financial issues do people experience?

Ms. Bryant: That’s an issue across the board. We look at finances in the broadest terms possible because we know that it’s not just about medical bills, even though that is obviously a huge factor.

The issue starts with the health insurance piece. If someone doesn’t have an adequate health insurance plan and their out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing, that’s going to have a direct impact on their finances. If someone isn’t accessing workplace protection so that they can continue to work, that has a direct impact on finances.

We find that a lot of people think very narrowly about finances, focusing only on financial assistance for copays. While that’s definitely an important part of the conversation, we want people to think more globally. That way, we can avoid some of the pitfalls.

Are finances more of an issue, for example, for people who have prostate cancer? Or are these mostly issues people who aren’t working or who are on fixed incomes face?

Ms. Bryant: We see financial issues from all different types of people, from all walks of life. Even people who would probably describe themselves as middle-class prior to a diagnosis tend to suffer what has now been termed the financial toxicity of a cancer diagnosis.

If someone can’t go to work, works for a small employer, and doesn’t have access to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they lose their jobs. Even if they have access to the FMLA, it’s unpaid leave.

For individuals who have lower incomes or who might not have a job that offers health insurance, financial toxicity tends to be more severe. We see this severity in younger adults because they tend to have smaller savings and be less secure in their careers. But it really isn’t limited to any particular segment.

Even if someone is middle class (and I’m not sure how we define that anymore) and has an employer-sponsored health insurance plan, if they’re out of work for more than 12 weeks they could lose their job. Then they have to figure out what to do for health insurance. If they don’t pick an adequate plan, they can exhaust their savings and tap into retirement. Maybe they can’t pay their mortgage. It can snowball very quickly if someone doesn’t understand how to use all of the different parts of the system.

We talk about finances in a global manner because there are so many pieces to the puzzle and each piece is important. Disability insurance is another very important piece. And very few people understand what disability insurance even is and how it can be useful after a diagnosis.

I’m sure most people don’t really understand what it is until they actually need it. And then it’s too late.

Ms. Bryant: Right. And in this country, if you don’t have disability insurance prior to your diagnosis, it can be very challenging to get once you have a preexisting condition.

That makes sense though, doesn’t it?

Ms. Bryant: I would like to see some more options for folks when they’re a number of years out of treatment, especially since so many people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer and since it has become more of a chronic disease. Healthcare industries need to adapt to this change.

That’s especially true with prostate cancer. Most men who have prostate cancer can have it for 10 to 15 years. They die with prostate cancer, rather than of it.

Ms. Bryant: Right. So to deny disability insurance for 15 years to people after they’ve had that diagnosis is extreme.

Are there other issues that come up specifically for prostate cancer patients?

Ms. Bryant: Many people request conversations around intimacy and sexuality. That’s a hot-button topic because it’s challenging to talk about. One of the experts we have in that area says it’s harder for men to talk about those issues than for women to talk about them. We get a lot of traction when we offer content around intimacy and sexuality. Conversations about nutrition and exercise are particularly well received, as well, because people acknowledge that we can improve overall health, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. The internet is both a wonderful thing and a horrible thing at the same time.

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Prostate Cancer Vaccines

Dr. Douglas McNeel is a Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Director of Solid Tumor Immunology Research within the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Dr. McNeel focuses on prostate immunology and the development of antitumor vaccines as a form of prostate cancer treatment.

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Can you give us an overview of vaccines for prostate cancer: which are available now and which are still in development?

Dr. McNeel: If a person has prostate cancer, he usually has surgery or radiation therapy to remove the cancer. These initial therapies cure a majority of patients, but about a third of the time, the disease comes back or resurfaces. We can usually detect the recurrence at a very early stage with a PSA blood test.

Our original thought was that the point of recurrence is the time to intervene, to create a tissue-rejection response.

You can’t really do without a normal kidney. The same is true of the liver.

But you can do fine without a prostate. So if we can create a rejection response to remove any prostate tissue, whether it’s cancer or not, that would be okay.

That was our original thought. The idea with vaccines is to teach the host to generate an immune response that will recognize and destroy cancer cells. But this is a challenge to treat existing tumors with vaccines. With infectious disease vaccines—what we normally think of when we talk about vaccines—we get an immune response that then protects you later on. We call them prophylactic vaccines. But we don’t treat active infections with vaccines. We treat them with therapies that target the bug directly or infuse in an immune system like an adoptive therapy approach.

With cancer, we see the same kinds of hurdles. What we know from animal models is that there are a number of cancer vaccines that can protect animals from cancer, but to get the best response against existing cancers, you have to start when tumors are small and barely detectable. That has been a challenge in pushing those vaccines into human trials.

We’re also learning that when you generate an immune response by means of a vaccination, the cancer can put up a big barrier very quickly to fight against it. Our thought process on vaccines is currently in the midst of changing given that kind of information.

A number of cancer vaccines have been studied over the years. Most of the effort has not produced anything, because we have been looking at vaccines alone, usually in patients with more advanced cancers.

There has been one exception. Provenge (sipuleucel-T), which is a vaccine targeting a protein called prostatic acid phosphatase, was approved in 2010. In this approach, patients have blood removed and their antigen presenting cells are spun out. Then the target of the vaccine, this prostatic acid phosphatase protein fused to an immune-modulating drug, is put together in the lab in the culture dish. The education of the immune system akes place in the lab, if you will. Those cells are then shipped back and infused back into the patient two or three days later. That process is cumbersome, but the approach was shown to be effective.

One large trial led to its FDA-approval. But there were other supportive Phase III trials showing that people who got the vaccine versus those who got a placebo vaccine did better and lived longer. It was a challenge rolling out Provenge (sipuleucel-T) because we don’t see PSA declines with it. We also don’t see changes in the tumors on scans, but we know that men with advanced prostate cancer, in general, live longer if they get that treatment.

Prostvac is an approach that has been in Phase III trials up until recently. Unfortunately, the Phase III trial was deemed to not have met its primary endpoint in September 2017. It did not show that people lived longer. It’s unclear if Prostvac will be developed or not.

Prostvac is a viral vaccine. There is one virus that encodes PSA and then a separate virus. People are immunized with one virus coding the PSA and then boosted with the separate virus. The idea is to use viral vaccines to focus the immune response on the target protein PSA.

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