Dr. Alicia K. 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.
She frames Prostatepedia’s March conversations about prostate cancer recurrence.
One of the most common questions I’m asked as a doctor who treats prostate cancer is: what happens to me if my cancer comes back? This is always a difficult conversation, especially because people often ask it in the presence of their family members. A man’s wife or child is also really interested in knowing the answer to the question. The question is often driven by anxiety and fear in men who have already undergone what can be a life-altering treatment experience. They’re trying to look ahead and plan for their future. But there are many parts to any possible answer.
First: what do you go through to monitor before the cancer comes back? After treatment, we follow a man’s health, watch his PSA intermittently over time, and often do imaging studies.
If the cancer comes back, the first sign is often that a man’s PSA starts to rise. At this point, we typically use imaging studies to understand what the disease is doing. Even when the PSA is really low, our new imaging technologies can show us where the cancer is and help us determine how a man’s recurrence may be ultimately treated—whether that is with local or systemic treatment. Again, this is a really anxiety-laden situation. We’re fortunate to have these new exciting imaging technologies for patients and their clinicians, which Prostatepedia discusses at length in this edition.
We use these imaging technologies in men with biochemical or PSA-only recurrence to help us understand where the cancer is located. For some men, these new imaging techniques might show us that there is a cancer recurrence in the pelvis where radiation can be given to potentially cure them of recurrent prostate cancer. That is a huge win, progress for our patients, and of course, wonderful news for the men and their families.
For other men, it is possible that we will not necessarily find recurrence, even with new imaging techniques. In those cases, we often continue to wait and watch. Biochemical recurrence can be challenging psychologically because knowing that your PSA is rising can be stressful, and the data explaining the best approach to treatment is not complete.
For men who have a single area of prostate cancer that has come back, whether as a single bone lesion or a few locations, advances in therapy for oligometastatic disease have come fast and furious. In this issue, Dr. Piet Ost talks about oligometastatic prostate cancer and how we might use radiation or surgery to treat a small amount of recurrent prostate cancer. Several clinical trials are working hard to figure out if treating this low volume of prostate cancer in single areas will potentially cure men of recurrent cancer.
It’s really important that we have new treatments we can use for men with hormone-sensitive metastatic prostate cancer, too. Over the last few years, we’ve seen men with metastatic hormone-sensitive prostate cancer live well for many years with several options for treatment. New data describing chemo-hormonal therapy or androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) with Zytiga (abiraterone acetate) have been incorporated quickly into clinical practice and are being widely used to help men with metastatic hormone-sensitive prostate cancer live longer.
Unfortunately, sometimes a man’s prostate cancer comes back more broadly, as a rising PSA only, or with sites of metastatic disease. This can be challenging physically, because sometimes it’s coupled with fatigue or pain as well as emotional difficulty. The cancer that a man thought was gone has now come back. To address this, there are many scientists and physicians working to try to help men with prostate cancer live better by using therapeutic advances as well as psychosocial and pain support teams that can improve patient-reported as well as disease outcomes. By incorporating social work and psychiatrists, centers are able to support men and their families, helping patients cope with PSA anxiety, which is an issue that can be anxiety-provoking and potentially go on for years at a time.
In terms of therapies, we as a field are very excited about new data that offers new therapies to men with biochemical recurrence who develop castration resistance before they have radiographic evidence of metastatic disease. Two clinical trials presented last month in San Francisco at the annual ASCO Genitourinary Oncology Symposium suggest that using either Xtandi (enzalutamide) or Erleada (apalutamide)—both androgen receptor-directed therapies—can prolong metastasis-free survival for men with castration-resistant non-metastatic disease.
This is a valuable advancement because any day spent without metastasis is a day spent feeling stronger and with less pain. We are also excited because both of these oral drugs have relatively low toxicities. Both clinicians and patients win when we add a significant amount of metastases-free time with a few pills and minimal side effects.
As a clinician, I understand the anxiety that drives the question: what if my cancer comes back? But this is a time of incredible hope. Medical advances are helping men live longer and live better, even if their cancers do come back.