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Us TOO: Mark Slaughter’s Prostate Cancer Story

Mark and Denise Slaughter talk about their experience with chemotherapy for prostate cancer.

DSCN7750 (ed) Denise & Mark

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The C word. No one can imagine beforehand the horror of being told you have cancer.

My problems began with urinary troubles: middle of the night urges, frequency, and the inability to go, start, or finish a urine stream. My primary care physician recommended a urologist.

My urologist was awesome and earned my confidence and trust with his approach. He explained he was trying to see a picture rather like a jigsaw puzzle, but in order to see the picture clearly, he needed more pieces of the puzzle. He convinced me to let him do a digital rectal exam (DRE).

The result was not good. On a 0-10 scale, 0-5 would indicate no problems and 5-10 would range from concern to panic. He said mine was about a 7 or 8. Very smooth everywhere, no evil nodules or lumps, but way too hard. Unlike the softer part of your thumb near the palm of your hand (like it should be), it felt like the harder area of your thumb where the bone is located. It was definitely a reason for concern.

Next, he talked me into a PSA test. I was one of the men who, about seven or eight years ago, read the controversial studies about PSA tests and unreliable results, and I took them to heart. Many organizations were saying PSA was overrated and shouldn’t even be used. So, I had stopped letting doctors test mine. My PSA was tested and came back very bad. It was 259. To see more of the picture, my doctor needed to do a biopsy. He respectfully listened to all of my logical arguments.

No number of needle probes will show you enough of the prostate. Too many and you can damage a fragile little organ. Besides, you would access a sterile body part by going in through a sewer. He held his ground and said he really needed this important piece of the puzzle. My wife and I thought about it overnight and agreed to let him do the biopsy.

My biopsy procedure was a piece of cake. I was given an antibiotic before the procedure. An ultrasound device accurately guided the doctor, and he was able to get 12 samples: 6 from each side of the prostate. Of the 12, I was really only hurt by one of them. Each felt like someone quickly poked me with a pencil. I heard the device click. I required no pain medication and passed a little blood during urination for a few days afterwards.

Then the results came. Of the 12 needle biopsy locations, nine were found to contain high-grade cancer. Of those nine, eight had a Gleason score of 8, and the last one was scored at 7. The range for cancer is 6 to 10, so we knew this was a bad score. It meant the cancer had spread beyond the prostate gland. My doctor said that the next step was to get CT and bone scans that, together, would show us where the cancer had spread in my body. My next stop was the hospital for the scans. The procedures were simple and easy enough. The results were another story.

February 8, 2018 is a day emblazoned in my memory, a day I will never forget, the day time stopped. That was the day I was told I have the big C word: I have cancer.

My doctor was tactful but did not mince words. The CT scan showed cancer in my lymph nodes, in my groin, and up my back on both sides of my spine. The bone scan showed lesions in four places on my pelvis and six places on my ribs. The tests all showed that I have advanced Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer. There is no cure. But we can manage it with hormone treatments and chemotherapy. With no treatment, I might only have a couple of years to live. With treatments, perhaps three to five years.

Upon hearing this news, my first thought was: I am dead. I had been standing next to my wife Denise, who was seated at her desk as we listened on the speakerphone. I collapsed into a seated position on the floor and reached out to catch Denise as she fell out of her chair. We crumbled to the floor together, sobbing and wailing with wrenching heaves of our chests. Squeezing each other as though life had ended that very moment. We embraced. We cried. We cried. We cried. Time stopped.

We laid together in a heap on the floor for a long time. By the time we climbed to our feet, we could hardly breathe. My face hurt from all the tears. Our eyes were swollen, our faces red below our eyes and otherwise colorless as though life itself had drained from our faces. It was like our lives were over.

My doctor referred us to an oncologist. We couldn’t stand him. He was rude and dismissive as he explained the chemo treatment plan and the poor prognosis for the remainder of my life. It is an understatement to say that he lacked a good bedside manner. Several friends immediately recommended we get a second opinion.

A friend of mine, and my former primary care physician when we lived in Atlanta, told me to forget that guy and get myself to another center. I did just that. I did just that and found an incredible doctor who was instrumental in the CHAARTED study that showed excellent results of early chemotherapy treatment combined with hormone therapy for the treatment of advanced metastatic prostate cancer.

My first appointment with this doctor was an education in prostate cancer. He explained the course of the disease, different methods of treatments, and answered each and every question I had. He described the treatment options as the tools in his toolbox. Whenever one might fail to produce results, he would reach for another one. He explained new drugs, such as hormone therapy, and he explained chemotherapy. Some people prefer chemo because it is six treatments and you are done. Other people would rather take pills for the rest of their lives. No study showed any real difference in the outcome of chemo versus hormone therapy. At first, I was going to go the hormone therapy route. I was terrified of chemo because of my preconceived notions and the horror stories from people I had known who went on chemo and suffered horrendous side effects before dying painful deaths.

But there was a major snag in my getting approval for hormone therapy. Because I am on Medicare and have the Part D drug coverage, I was not eligible for any financial aid from the pharmaceutical companies or from any other charitable organizations for hormone therapy.

Consequently, it was going to cost me in the neighborhood of $5,000 per month for the rest of my life. This was a huge blow to overcome mentally and financially. There was no way I could afford that.

My doctor reassured me again that the results of chemo are as positive as those from hormone therapy. Medicare would pay for the chemo. Because of these two considerations, I chose to take the chemo. Believe me, nothing about taking chemo comes close to the fear and angst of anticipating it.

I am currently undergoing chemo. I am through the fourth of six cycles of Taxotere (docetaxel). The biggest side effect for me has been the infamous cancer fatigue, especially during the first week after chemo. It takes about all the energy I have to walk from my chair to my bed to take a nap.

My doctors gave me Compazine (prochlorperazine), which prevents nausea and has worked extremely well for me. I also take Lupron (leuprolide), which has caused some hot flashes, mostly in the late afternoon and evening. Sometimes

I have night sweats. Cramps of my ankles are a bothersome little issue several times a week.

One thing I have not had at all is neuropathy. My wife read about studies done in Canada, the United Kingdom, and France that indicate icing of the fingers and toes during chemo infusions prevents any changes to fingernails and toenails as well as neuropathy. I asked my oncologist and he said although there are no definitive studies in the United States that show results, he didn’t object to my doing it. My wife has faithfully kept my hands and feet iced during treatments. It’s not pleasant, but it’s certainly tolerable and offers a big pay-off. To me, it’s like a kid playing in the snow with no mittens.

Each of my sessions lasts about 1.5-2 hours. Once in a while, when it feels too cold, I take my hands or feet out of the ice for a short break. Overall, my treatments have been far less of an ordeal that the initial fear of treatment.

Another side effect: hair loss. I have had heavy, patchy hair loss on my head that started about 13 days after my first chemo treatment. The afternoon when large patches of hair began falling out into my hands in the shower, I decided to take action. The next morning, slowly, deliberately, I dressed, collected my wallet and keys, walked to the garage, got in the car, drove to the nearest barber and got a buzz cut. I didn’t think about it. I just did it. And it was one of the best decisions I have made. It is far easier to manage quarter inch long hair than patches of messy hair. I would say to any guy, wait and see if your hair begins to fall out, then just accept the fact and manage it.

As for sexual function, I am 66 years old and have suffered from erectile dysfunction for six or seven years. Hormone therapy is medical castration. The result is loss of sexual function. I rarely have any kind of erection, and even the size of my genitals has shrunken somewhat.

But, with a loving partner, these things have not been so hard to accept. I still have the good feelings two people share in intimacy. I would rather be alive than fully-functional, sexually. I do admit my history has made this easier to accept than it might be for some younger men. The key here is perspective. Some choices in life are just hard. You have to decide what matters the most.

The biggest positive about chemo is that you do it and it’s over forever. For me, six cycles of three weeks, then never again. This compared to a lifetime of multiple pills on a daily basis, worrying all the while about how long they might be effective.

On the down side, you have to get your head around walking into a room feeling good and letting them inject you with strong chemicals that will make you feel bad. It’s rather bizarre. I live about 200 miles from my cancer treatment center, so the car trip and hotel stay give me way too much time to let bad thoughts get in the way before each treatment. Again, it’s all about controlling your thoughts and attitude. I know it sounds trite, but holding onto a positive attitude really matters.

The routine at each treatment is: a lab test for blood markers, doctor appointment, and chemo infusion. If my blood looks good, the doctor approves the chemo, then the chemo is prepared and infused. I know it’s working because the blood tests show positive results. My PSA has dropped from 259 to 20, 5, 2, and 1.7 over the first 4 treatments. Similarly, my testosterone has dropped from around 500 to less than 20, which the doctors consider insignificant. They tell me my testosterone level is that of a prepubescent boy, which is good because loss of testosterone starves the cancer.

My oncologist has not even discussed AR-V7 biomarkers with me because, so far, my cancer has been responsive to chemo. We have had some general discussions about castrate-resistant prostate cancer and that there are other options for continued hormone treatments after the Lupron (leuprolide), should it become ineffective.

I have a wonderful support group. First, my loving wife of 46 years is a registered nurse and the best advocate anyone could ever ask for. Second, I live in an active adult community of residents over 55. So many of my neighbors have been supportive and shared their own experiences with cancer. Third, I have a strong faith. My church friends have been amazing with calls, cards, food, gifts, and time for visits. It has been humbling to see how many dear friends I have and how supportive they are in my time of need. I think this is one of the biggest keys in getting through cancer.

I have to mention some of the person-to-person connections I have been provided with through Us TOO have helped greatly in terms of information and support.

My advice to anyone facing chemotherapy is to first go to the nearest national cancer center, get a top-rated oncologist who specializes in your particular cancer, ask questions, listen to suggestions, and make a shared decision with your oncologist and caregiver. Ask your team of doctors and pharmacologists for all information about drugs and their most common side effects.

Each person’s cancer is unique and your responses to drugs will also be unique.

The Grim Reaper follows us all. Most of our lives we ignore the inevitable fact that everyone will die. With a chronic, terminal diagnosis, the Grim Reaper comes up closer behind us. The key to survival is to never look back. Focus forward. Look to the light of day. Focus on the here and now. Enjoy life.

In a strange way, having advanced Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer is a gift. It has changed the focus of my life in positive ways. Because now, more than ever before, I live in the present. And life is more intense, fuller, and more complete than I could have imagined.

Join us to read this month’s conversations about chemotherapy for prostate cancer.


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Patients Speak: Let’s Talk About It

Gary H spoke with Prostatepedia about prostate cancer journey and the choices he’s made along the way.

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How were you initially diagnosed with prostate cancer?

Gary H: I live in Colorado, and I get a physical every year. I didn’t know this, but my doctor started checking my PSA at 40. About five years ago, when I was 54, my doctor said my PSA went up from 2.0 to about 4.4. He said there was a small chance of cancer, but when it gets up to that number, it’s important to check it, so he recommended a biopsy. I went in there just for a physical. Next thing you know, I’m going to get a biopsy.

I found a good doc, went in, and did the biopsy. He did about 12 needles. It turned out that I had some cancer in certain parts of my prostate.

He said, “You’re a young guy. Just go take it out.” But I started researching more and more, and because my PSA wasn’t going up very fast, I started the journey looking at what to do.

Where did you go for research? Did you turn to the internet? Friends?

Gary H: Yes. I talked to people I know who knew someone who went through it. I just talked to lots of people who had a friend, brother, or relative, and I just called them. From them, I heard everything from “I had it taken out” to “active surveillance.” I was getting calls about the proton or doing brachy. I was amazed by how many different approaches there are. I got a feeling for what I needed to do, and then I talked to four or five top surgeons and in different places, like Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins, and MD Anderson.

You did your due diligence.

Gary H: I sure did. I did everything I could possibly do, and from what I understood, if PSA is under 10, it hasn’t spread. I had about 8, but it wasn’t going very fast. I found a fairly young fellow in Denver that I had a lot of confidence in. After speaking with about seven people who had it removed and told me what to expect, I elected to have it removed. That was a big decision.

How did you find the surgeon that you ended up going with?

Gary H: I felt that someone who had done thousands of prostatectomies was just knocking them out, going right through them and probably pretty fast. I wanted someone who hadn’t done so many but who really took his time, someone very serious about it, someone who cared maybe a little more. The surgery may take only an hour, but I wanted a meticulous person.

A friend of mine who sold healthcare products in hospitals all over spoke very highly of this one doctor in Colorado. That’s how I found my doctor. Then I had to decide between the old fashioned or robotic way. While the guys that go in there with their hands can feel what’s going on, which can be beneficial, there can be a lot more bleeding. I chose robotic because there would be less bleeding, and I’m glad I did.

Did you have any side effects after the surgery?

Gary H: Not really. Because I was young, they said I should be fine, and I really didn’t have any side effects. It took me a little longer to heal than I thought it would. I started exercising maybe before I should’ve. I should’ve waited a little bit longer.

Otherwise, everything went the way it was supposed to, and everything was great. That was a little over three years ago. I have been as athletic as ever, and I never had a problem with incontinence.

What kind of monitoring did they do after the surgery?

Gary H: About every three months, for about three years, I had my PSA checked. About five months ago, my PSA showed up as 0.02. Before that, it was 0.01, which is what they call undetectable. It’s still undetectable, but it went up to 0.06. I just had another test, and I’m waiting on the results. It’s a whole new program now.

As far as what I’ve learned, the doubling time is the big thing, and so it’s been doubling every two or three months, which is pretty quick. But the number is very low. I’m starting to ask questions again, but the speed is the concern, not so much the number.

Right: the velocity, they say.

Gary H: Right. Depending on this new test, I may have it radiated.

Is this something your doctor suggested, or is this a result of your previous research and discussions with other men?

Gary H: Probably a combination. My doctor initially told me that if it gets to 0.20, we should look at doing radiation and maybe hormone. Then, it was only 0.02, so I had a long way to go. Because of the speed of it, he advised to just have it radiated, that I didn’t need the hormone at this point. Because the doubling time is minimal but going faster, the velocity threw me a curve ball.

Have you had any imaging studies to see what’s going on, or is it so far just blood tests that you’re getting?

Gary H: No. No imaging. It’s because the number is so low. They say they wouldn’t be able to detect anything. But I plan to probably do the imaging. My one doc says it doesn’t get in your bones until it goes up to 40 or 50. A PSA of 0.03 or even 0.06 is really just starting to get going, so it’s most likely still in the bed.

For right now, you’re just in a waiting game, right?

Gary H: Yeah. I’m waiting today, actually. But I’m not concerned or worried. It’s a nonissue because of all the information. The more you know, the more comfortable you are. And it’s really out of my mind until maybe the day I’ve got to go and have blood work. Then, I feel like I’m in the electric chair for the next six to eight hours until I find out.

There’s that waiting thing, right?

Gary H: That’s right. That’s the only real negative, I suppose.

They call that PSA anxiety.

Gary H: Yeah. There you go. And now I’m not too worried. There are lots of great technologies and options. It’s just the radiation that concerns me, really. I’ve got to be in one place for two months. That’s the thing.

There are many good radiation therapists out there, so I’m sure you’ll be in good hands. It’s also good to have an action plan for what you would do next if you need to take more action, right?

Gary H: It sure is comforting that way. Now, what I went through with prostate cancer is not the same as other forms of cancers. I guess I could say I’m very fortunate to have found it when I did and to have had a doctor that was checking me all the time.

Right. You didn’t even know you were getting your PSA checked.

Gary H: I didn’t even know.

Do you have any thoughts for other men who are newly diagnosed or in a similar situation to yours?

Gary H: When you first hear about it, your initial reaction is: okay, what does that mean? Prostate cancer hasn’t really= changed my life. I still exercise. I feel great. I compete as a golfer. It’s not like all of a sudden I’ve got to go and sit in a chair, and read a book for the rest of my life.

It’s just a nuisance more than anything.

That’s if you stay on top of it. Now, of course, it could’ve been a lot worse. I had an uncle who passed away back in 1982 of prostate cancer, so it was in my family. He had waited and waited. He was supposed to have it out, but he was afraid, so he waited an extra year or two. By then, it was too late.

Do what you have to do initially, and learn as much as you can about your disease. There are lots of people to talk to and options out there.

At one point, for example, I was going to do the brachy. Once, I almost did the cryo. I was actually up at 6:00 am getting ready to go to the hospital for the cryo treatment, but I didn’t. I just didn’t feel right. I went the aggressive route and had it removed. Just do what you have to do. It’s not a painful experience, really. It’s more of a nuisance from your daily activities.

You have to step back, reevaluate, and take some time. Figure out what approach to take, and go that route.

What about reaching out to other men because it sounds like you really did? You had a lot of discussions with your friends and family. Would you recommend that other men do that as well?

Gary H: Oh, absolutely. Everybody’s different. I know people who are not very social and just rely on the internet. Others will talk to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and that’s how I was. I did a little bit of everything. I had three close pals who had it, so I talked to them.

Everybody’s an individual and different about what approach they want to take. I have a friend who has a similar situation to mine, but he’s chosen active surveillance. He’s really staying right around that number, and it’s not going anywhere.

You do read conflicting things, for example, that PSA is not important, but it is important. If it’s on the move, you need to do something about it. So, reaching out and talking with other men is important, even just to sort through conflicting information.

People find it helpful to listen to other men’s stories.

Gary H: I like it a lot. I travel all over as a competitive golfer, and I always wanted to hook up with some organization, so while traveling, I could speak in different towns each week. I am competing. I’m out there. I’ve been through it all. I’d like to share with others.

There’s still a bit of a cultural shyness or reticence about speaking about prostate cancer. Perhaps it’s a gender thing, but a lot of men are hesitant to talk about it.

Gary H: Yeah. I’m not. I’m not at all.

Any way you can get the dialogue out there is good.

Gary H: I’m very open about it. I don’t have a problem. It’s a certain age. It’s not like an 18-year-old so much. We’re older now. Let’s talk about it.

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Dr. John Gore: Why Medicine?

Dr. John Gore is a clinician, surgeon, researcher, and educator specializing in urologic oncology and general urology at the University of Washington.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about how Decipher changes the way doctors treat men with prostate cancer.

Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. John Gore: My initial vision for my life was that I was going to be a lawyer. Then I found that I really enjoyed my experiences while interning at the hospital. That brought about an application to medical school. I think being a doctor offers a chance to have a daily meaningful impact, which is a unique part of the job.

How did you end up working in urology?

Dr. Gore: Urology is a specialty that very few people enter medical school thinking that they want to do. In part, most people are like I was and don’t even know about the specialty. I don’t have any doctors in my family. The only doctor I knew was my own pediatrician. I just assumed I was going to be a pediatrician.

But I really enjoyed surgery. I enjoyed being in the operating room. I just really enjoy the generic construct that someone has a problem and I have the tools to fix it.

Urology is an interesting hybrid. Most surgeries have a homolog in internal medicine. For example, there’s cardiothoracic surgery and cardiology. There’s colorectal surgery and gastroenterology. We don’t really have that in urology. We do a lot of chronic disease management. We do a lot of long-term follow-up of our own patients. It is, in many ways, a hybrid of internal medicine and surgery, which is really cool.

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Dr. Felix Feng: Why I Became A Doctor

Dr. Felix Feng is a physician-scientist at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) keenly interested in improving outcomes for patients with prostate cancer. His research centers on discovering prognostic/predictive biomarkers in prostate cancer and developing rational approaches to targeted treatment for therapy-resistant prostate cancer. He also sees patients through his prostate cancer clinic at UCSF.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about why he became a doctor who cares for men with prostate cancer.

Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Felix Feng: I became a doctor because my family has a strong history of cancer. Unfortunately, I learned the repercussions of cancer at an early age. All four of my grandparents passed away from some form of cancer. My father has successfully overcome three different cancers. Just last year, my sister, unfortunately, passed away in her 40s from cancer.

Before ever becoming a doctor, I was part of many patients’ families. I saw it strongly from the patient side and decided that if I was going to commit my life to studying something, it was going to be cancer.

So then your journey is really personal.

Dr. Feng: Very personal.

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The Making of A Cancer Activist

Joel Nowak is a prostate cancer patient and well-known cancer activist.

Tell us about your own prostate cancer journey and how you came to cancer activism.

Mr. Joel Nowak: Part of my journey to being an advocate pertains not only to having prostate cancer and recurrence but also to the fact that I had multiple primary cancers. I currently have five different primary cancer diagnoses.

I was treated initially for prostate cancer at the end of 2001. I had a Gleason 3 + 4 with a PSA of only 4. I had surgery. I went back in five years and my PSA went crazy, up into the 80s.

At that point, it was a recurrence. We did a bunch of scans. We identified a couple of lymph nodes in the prostate bed, as well as a very significant and large tumor in my kidney. At that moment, the assumption was that I had a prostate cancer tumor in the kidney and that the kidney had stopped functioning and was basically dead. I had a nephrectomy, which is the removal of the kidney. We found out that it was a different diagnosis: clear cell renal cancer.

Looking back, I see that prostate cancer recurrence saved my life because that’s how I found out that I had renal cancer. If it weren’t for my prostate cancer recurring, I would not be here today.

I was in my early 50s, so I was fairly young at the time. I knew I was metastatic with prostate cancer and had been diagnosed with another primary cancer. Knowing that I was metastatic weighed very heavily on me. There was no way to use that C-word—cure—which I don’t like to use. I looked desperately for people in a similar situation. I refer to it as looking like me, but I don’t mean physically. I mean people in their 50s, with a kid in high school, a kid in college, and metastatic prostate cancer that was incurable and possibly terminal.

I found myself becoming angrier and angrier.

Not only did I have metastatic cancer, but also I felt very alone in the sense that I couldn’t find anybody in a similar situation. I went from one cancer support group to another. Though I lived in metropolitan New York where there are options, I still could never find anybody I could relate to directly, someone with a similar experience. I found plenty of older men who were worried about whether or not they would make it to their grandchild’s wedding and things like that, but for me, that had no relevance. I became more isolated, lonelier, and angry.

One night, I was inappropriate with the group leader of one support group. I was overly aggressive and blamed that person for what I perceived as my situation. Instead of reacting to my aggression, the person just sat back in their chair, looked at me, and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?” I went home and discussed it with my wife who tried to stabilize me. “Why don’t you,” she said. I got angrier at first and just stewed for a while.

It has been 10 years, but when I went to bed that night I thought I was going to die within a few years. It’s common for many men with recurrence or metastatic cancer to wonder if they’re going to die in a year or two. I felt terrible and angry. I’m not really an angry person, but I had become a very hostile person.

When I woke up the next morning, I decided that I didn’t want to live my life feeling that way. I was going to find a way to let go of that anger and do something about it. That’s how I got involved with activism.

You decided to channel all the fear, anger, and anxiety into something positive.

Mr. Nowak: Yes. I think that’s what it was. I’m not saying that I still don’t have moments; I do. And since then, I’ve had two additional primary cancer diagnoses. One of them was a rare cancer. But the prostate cancer was the only one that caused that kind of emotional response, probably because that is the only one, so far, that is metastatic.

I spend a lot of time with prostate cancer, but I also work with other cancers—metastatic, advanced, and progressed prostate cancer.

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The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a clinician at Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care, and an Associate Member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, focuses on computational cancer genomics, using new technology in precision medicine, and resistance to targeted prostate cancer therapies.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project, a nationwide genomic research study for men with advanced or metastatic prostate cancer.

What is the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project?

Dr. Van Allen: The Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project is a patient-driven research initiative whereby we researchers partner directly with patients to dramatically expand the scope of our understanding prostate cancer genetics. We try to fill in all of the missing gaps that are currently a challenge in our field. Hopefully, we’ll learn what drives advanced prostate cancer, how to treat it more effectively, come up with new drugs, and understand the differences between more indolent cancers and those that progress in the metastatic setting. Essentially, I want to answer the questions I had during my initial clinical observations way back when.

You say you want to partner directly with the patients. How does that disrupt the normal clinical trial process? Normally, patients would access trials through their doctors?

Dr. Van Allen: Exactly. That’s what I’ve done during my postdoctoral training and in my junior faculty stage. That’s what we all do: we devise the research project, write a bunch of protocols and consent forms, and get them approved in our hospitals. Then we rely on the doctors and research teams to approach patients. They consent their patients to the studies that are already defined and set in stone. We use that to research. That’s obviously been a driving force for many modern discoveries. It’s a remarkable thing.

And that’s how we have to lay the first genetic maps of prostate cancer and cancers in general. This project flips genomics on its head. We’ve been working with prostate cancer patients to build a project with, by, and for men with advanced prostate cancer, their families, caregivers, and loved ones in order to resonate with patients. We are creating a mechanism such that patients can consent without leaving their home and participate without necessarily living near an academic medical center. This helps expand the scope of what we were able to learn in new ways.

A couple of years ago, while trying to define the genetic maps of local and advanced prostate cancer, we launched the first of these patient-driven projects at the Broad Institute in metastatic breast cancer. Using social media, patient outreach, advocacy partners, and patients themselves describing what it means to participate in these projects, that study enrolled over 4,000 women and men with metastatic breast cancer. Given that we’re thrilled when the average study to define the genetic maps of prostate cancer enrolls 100 patients over the course of years, if not decades, that number in such short time is remarkable. As we developed that project, I immediately thought of prostate cancer.

Rather than doing a top-down research project whereby we start with an idea in a researcher’s head, we go through the hospital and the doctors, and eventually, the patients, we’re starting with the patients. They’re talking directly to the researchers and building up. That is the ethos of this project.

This is not a traditional, academic project whereby we generate all the data, sit on it in our own little groups while we try to make sense of it, and eventually make it available to the larger community. Rather, as soon as we have a nominal amount of data, we make it immediately available to any researcher around the world who wants to use it. We’re trying to create a resource that anyone could use. The first 100 patients with genetic and clinical data have been made available for researchers pre-competitively. We don’t wait and publish these results in an academic journal or any other medium first.

Publishing in a traditional academic journal can restrict access for patients. If they want to read to read the results, they have to pay $30 to download the article.

Dr. Van Allen: Exactly.

If someone reading this wants to participate, what do they do?

Dr. Van Allen: If you have advanced prostate cancer, simply go to mpcproject.org. There, the homepage describes what’s involved. When you click the “count me in” button, it sends you on what we hope is a very quick journey through a few basic questions. Then, it asks for your permission or consent to participate in this project. There are a few more simple questions after that.

Soon after you register, you’ll receive a box that contains a saliva kit that the patient will spit in and return to get their inherited DNA information. Additionally, there’s a liquid biopsy kit, which is a vial that you bring to your doctor’s appointment to collect a liquid biopsy of your tumor. Then you return the sample to us.

When we receive those materials, we perform genetic profiling and access the medical record data. We de-identify everything to make sure it’s private, so nothing is exposed. We build a cohort and learn as we go.

Each step of the process has been vetted, scrutinized, criticized, and modified based on patient feedback such that we hope it resonates with this group. Part of this is actually iterating as we go. This is a research project. We’re not a clinical lab, so at the moment at least, we do not return results to individuals. But we do regularly engage with patients to share aggregate results of anything we learn in real time.

Patients won’t have access to the results of their tests?

Dr. Van Allen: Right. Unfortunately, we can’t provide individualized results, at the moment at least, because it’s beyond the scope of this project. It’s something we’re very interested in trying to explore. It creates many additional complexities. There is a holy patient/doctor relationship that we want to respect. That being said, often men will ask what’s in it for them and ask why would I want to do this?

We try to share aggregate results as regularly as possible. Patients can take those aggregate results, or any sort of interesting findings, to their doctor to consider if it’s relevant to them. Also, it’s a beautiful thing to see how patients themselves get when it comes to helping others: This is for the brothers, the sons, the patients that come after me, and I want to contribute. I want to help solve this puzzle, even if I may not see it in my lifetime. That altruistic aspect is genuinely great.

They do get to participate.

Dr. Van Allen: Yes. They’re just surprised that folks like myself, or anyone in the research world, is even talking to them. But patients are the most powerful people in this world. They have the power to really make these kinds of change

I think most people would want to participate if it’s easy to do. Are you providing detailed information about the kinds of tests you’re running so that if patients wanted to repeat them with their own doctor they could?

Dr. Van Allen: We’re doing whole exome sequencing, which looks at all the coding region of the genome on the tumor and the inherited DNA.

We are also piloting sending in liquid biopsies. One emerging technology that’s arrived over the last couple of years is the ability to detect circulating DNA that has shed from the tumor into the blood. That is an important advance for this project because most men with metastatic prostate cancer will not have had a biopsy of their tumor at the time of metastatic disease. They may have had a prostate biopsy years, if not decades, before but that tumor from way back when isn’t an accurate snapshot of what the tumor is like in the metastatic setting. Detecting a tumor in relative real time using blood is something we’re pretty excited to explore as part of this project.

For the men we sequence, we do our best effort to track down their tumor block. We go through every precaution to ensure that we don’t exhaust the tumor biopsy and that clinical care comes first. If there’s ever a need for it down the road, that’s the number one priority. We’re exploring how to use these liquid biopsies to help us in this project.

Do you handle the liquid biopsies?

Dr. Van Allen: Yes, it’s the Broad Institute.

Can anyone participate? Can non-Americans participate?

Dr. Van Allen: At the moment, we are approved so that anyone from the United States and Canada can participate. Anyone in other parts of the world can complete the survey and provide some of the patient-reported data, but we don’t currently have permission to do the subsequent genomic profiling for them. In our soft launch, we’ve scanned through self-reported information from almost 200 patients. That has already initiated some ideas for research projects we never would have imagined.

This patient-reported data is quite valuable. Anyone who, at the moment, may not be eligible by virtue of not qualifying from a regulatory perspective for our institutional review board can still contribute to this project in a meaningful way.

A fair number of people travel for medical procedures. If someone travels to the United States for radiation, for example, could they have the samples collected at a United States institution and therefore participate in that way?

Dr. Van Allen: For now, the study can only collect samples and medical records from residents of the United States and Canada. We are actively investigating methods for including international patients.

Is there a fee to participate, or is this free for men?

Dr. Van Allen: Free.

Is there anything else you think men should know about the project?

Dr. Van Allen: We’ve been concerned about patient interest and openness. In our first project for breast cancer, the social media footprint was quite high. The social media chatter is noticeable and folks feel pretty comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their disease. Even though incidents of disease is roughly the same in the United States for breast and prostate cancer, the social media footprint for prostate cancer is the complete opposite.

As we geared up for our soft launch, we were curious to see if we’d end up with the same number of participants, even if we weren’t seeing any social media chatter. People don’t talk about this disease. Indeed, on the first version of the saliva kit that we mail out to the patients, metastatic prostate cancer project was printed on the box. Men asked us to take that off the box. We didn’t understand why. One guy explained: “I don’t want the mailman to know I have prostate cancer.”

It’s that kind of challenge we’d like to help overcome. We want to make men feel more comfortable talking about this disease amongst friends, families, and coworkers. We hope this project can be the mechanism to help men open up about it. It’s encouraging that in the first ten days we’ve accrued an almost identical number of patients as we did with the breast cancer soft launch a couple of years ago. Nobody talks about prostate cancer on Twitter and Facebook, at least in open settings. We’re very curious to learn how patients become comfortable talking about this disease and about this project.

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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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