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Dr. Ken Pienta: Chemo For Prostate Cancer

Dr. Kenneth J. Pienta, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is an international expert in the development of novel chemotherapeutic agents for prostate cancer. He was the recipient of the first annual American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award and is the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed articles. He frames this month’s conversations about chemotherapy for us.

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In 2018, chemotherapy for prostate cancer continues to be one of the many options we have to lengthen the lives of patients suffering from metastatic prostate cancer. There are still multiple other therapies that we don’t consider chemotherapy. Second-generation anti-androgen therapies like Zytiga (abiraterone), Erleada (apalutamide), and Xtandi (enzalutamide) are all now standards of care in castrate-resistant prostate cancer. We also have Xofigo (radium-223) as an option for patients with bony metastases.

There are two chemotherapies that have been approved for prostate cancer: Taxotere (docetaxel) and Jevtana (cabazitaxel). Now, the real challenge for patients and providers is when to use those chemotherapies.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that, when you’re newly diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, it may be beneficial to receive a limited number of doses of Taxotere (docetaxel) at the start of hormone therapy. That’s especially true if you have multiple places where the cancer has spread. That’s not correct for all people, but for some patients, it is a good option. More and more physicians are prescribing Taxotere (docetaxel) with a luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) antagonist at the start of therapy.

However, that doesn’t mean you cannot use Taxotere (docetaxel) after other things have failed. If you failed second-line hormone therapy or have failed radium therapy, Taxotere (docetaxel) is still a good option that helps people live longer.

Jevtana (cabazitaxel) continues to be a good chemotherapy option if patients have failed Taxotere (docetaxel).

Thank goodness we’ve seen over the last several years an increase in the number of drugs available to treat metastatic prostate cancer in addition to chemotherapy. Chemotherapy has been around for quite a while now, but there is still a role for it.

Again, the challenge for all of us is: when do we slot them in for you? The chemotherapy we use for prostate cancer is really a single agent chemotherapy, either Taxotere (docetaxel) or Jevtana (cabazitaxel). This is not the multi-agent therapy we use for other cancers, so the idea of major side effects is a bit overblown. For example, nobody vomits from chemotherapy for prostate cancer. The drugs we use to prevent that are too good.

We also have gotten much smarter about limiting the number of doses we use. We don’t necessarily give chemotherapy until it doesn’t work anymore. Often, we just give several doses and then take a break. If you get more than a couple doses of chemotherapy, you will still lose your hair temporarily.

Chemotherapy can make you feel more tired when it lowers your blood count, and it can make you more susceptible to infections, but people are very rarely hospitalized now for an infection from chemotherapy. It’s virtually unheard of that somebody would die as a side effect of chemotherapy.

The major side effect of Jevtana (cabazitaxel) tends to be diarrhea, but again, as we’ve learned about the dosing of that drug, that has become more manageable.

Another side effect of both drugs can be peripheral neuropathy, which is tingling in the fingers and toes. But we watch for that too. If you start to develop that, we tend to stop the drug. These are very tolerable medicines.

The word chemotherapy always evokes images of horror, but chemotherapy in 2018 is a lot different than it was even five years ago. We just know how to give chemotherapy much better. When I started in the field 30 years ago, if you had metastatic castrate resistant prostate cancer, survival was 6 months. Now, with the advent of all these newer therapies, we’ve gotten much better. The landscape of how to treat prostate cancer has changed completely in the last five years. It will change completely again in the next five years. The challenge is in what order are we going to use all these powerfully good drugs rather than having only one drug to give or none at all.

For us as physicians, it’s an exciting time to take care of men with prostate cancer.

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