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Editorial – Prostate cancer surgery vs radiation: has the fat lady sung?

The current article by Sun et al. [1] representing a number of institutions involved in prostate cancer treatment provision is thought-provoking and hypothesis-generating. The authors contention when mining Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results data for 67 000 men who had localized prostate cancer between 1988 and 2005 is that those with a life expectancy >10 years had less likelihood of prostate cancer death when treated with surgery rather than by radiotherapy or being left to observation. The Scandinavians have already shown, in the randomized study by Hugosson et al. [2], that if you have your prostate cancer removed you have less likelihood of symptomatic local recurrence, lower likelihood of metastasis and progression, and a 29% reduced likelihood of prostate cancer death. The current study asks the question ‘Is radiation therapy less likely to provide a long-term cure for prostate cancer than surgery?’ and gives an answer in the affirmative.

The current paper, in its way, neatly encapsulates the contemporary angst generated in the community when prostate cancer screening, diagnosis and therapy are discussed. The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening (PLCO) trial [3] allegedly shows no benefit from treatment over observation and contends perhaps that we surgeons and radiation oncologists are harm-workers, not life-savers. The PLCO has a 52% PSA contamination in its control arm [3]. That flawed trial compared screening with de facto screening and produced, in my view, a null hypothesis. How do we explain the paradox of a 44% reduction in prostate cancer-specific mortality between 1993 and 2009? How do we explain the disconnect between these trials and the facts? What do we do with the data not yet considered by the expert panels showing that early PSA testing at age <50 years is highly predictive of subsequent lethal prostate cancer? [4]

Clinicians are rapidly moving to an era of judicious risk assessment. This can only be done after biopsy is performed. We now frequently enrol patients with apparently indolent prostate cancer into surveillance protocols [5]. So the question should be ‘If the disease found on biopsy is moderate to high risk, and potentially lethal for that man, should we remove his prostate surgically or radiate it with intensity-modulated radiation therapy, brachytherapy, proton therapy, +/- hormone therapy?’.

As a surgeon I have an inherent dislike of combining hormone therapy in primary treatment. At least 50% of men in high-risk prostate cancer cohorts who receive radiation therapy also receive hormone therapy as adjuvant or neoadjuvant treatment [6]. Hormone therapy has a myriad of side effects. Even if the playing field was level between surgery and radiation therapy, the avoidance of hormone therapy as a first-line treatment gives surgery a seductive advantage.

The authors of the current report show a significant survival advantage in the cohort for surgery over radiation therapy and observation. There will never be a randomized trial between the two potentially curative treatment methods surgery and radiation. The scourge of commercial interest with spurious claims of superiority of one form of therapy over another, proton beam vs intensity-modulated radiation therapy, robotics vs high-intensity focused ultrasonography, means that we risk having our decisions regarding appropriate therapy formed by multibillion dollar technology companies with powerful marketing capacity. The current paper confirms what is self-evident: untreated localized prostate cancer can be lethal. Surgery and radiation therapy lower the morbidity and mortality from prostate cancer. Which is the better method of curative therapy is moot, but we do know that cure is very much predicated on the expertise and location of the practitioner.

We know mostly when and who to treat and what treatments work well. In my view, the prostate cancer testing debate resonates with the contemporary discussion about childhood immunization for infectious diseases. Some parents now, who clearly cannot remember the devastating epidemics of polio and other childhood illnesses, refuse to immunize their children. Prostate cancer practitioners who did not live in the quite recent era where the initial presentation of prostate cancer was bone metastasis +/− crush fracture to the vertebra and sometimes paraplegia, may be unknowingly steering us backwards.

At the recent 2013 AUA meeting, Adams et al. [7] reported on the fate of men not screened for prostate cancer, i.e. those men who presented with a PSA >100 ng/mL. There was a 3-year survival rate of 9.7%, a 19.7% cord compression rate and a 64% hospitalization rate. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

Anthony J. Costello
Department of Surgery, Royal Melbourne Hospital, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

References

  1. Sun M, Sammon JD, Becker A et al. Radical prostatectomy vs radiotherapy vs observation among older patients with clinically localized prostate cancer: a comparative effectiveness evaluationBJU Int 2014; 113: 200–208
  2. Hugosson J, Carlsson S, Aus G et al. Mortality results from the Goteborg randomised population-based prostate-cancer screening trialLancet Oncol 2010; 11: 725–732
  3. Andriole GL, Crawford ED, Grubb RL 3rd et al. Prostate cancer screening in the randomized Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial: mortality results after 13 years of follow-upJ Natl Cancer Inst 2012; 104: 125–132
  4. Vickers AJ, Ulmert D, Sjoberg DD et al. Strategy for detection of prostate cancer based on relation between prostate specific antigen at age 40–55 and long term risk of metastasis: case-control studyBMJ 2013; 346: f2023
  5. Evans SM, Millar JL, Davis ID et al. Patterns of care for men diagnosed with prostate cancer in Victoria from 2008 to 2011Med J Aust 2013; 198: 540–545
  6. Cooperberg MR, Vickers AJ, Broering JM, Carroll PR. Comparative risk-adjusted mortality outcomes after primary surgery, radiotherapy, or androgen-deprivation therapy for localized prostate cancerCancer 2010; 116: 5226–5234
  7. Adams W, Elliott CS, Reese JH. The fate of men presenting with PSA over 100 ng/mL: what happens when we do not screen for prostate cancer? AUA 2013. Abstract 2696

 

Video: Why the Melbourne Statement?

The Melbourne Consensus Statement on the early detection of prostate cancer

Declan G. Murphy1,2,3, Thomas Ahlering4, William J. Catalona5, Helen Crowe2,3, Jane Crowe3, Noel Clarke10, Matthew Cooperberg6, David Gillatt11, Martin Gleave12, Stacy Loeb7, Monique Roobol14, Oliver Sartor8, Tom Pickles13, Addie Wootten3, Patrick C. Walsh9 and Anthony J. Costello2,3

1Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, 2Royal Melbourne Hospital, University of Melbourne, 3Epworth Prostate Centre, Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre, Epworth Healthcare Richmond, Melbourne, Vic., Australia, 4School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, 5Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL, 6Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Centre, University of California, San Francisco, 7New York University, 8Tulane University School of Medicine, Tulane, 9The James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute, Johns Hopkins University, USA, 10The Christie Hospital, Manchester University, Manchester, 11Bristol Urological Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK, 12The Vancouver Prostate Centre, 13BC Cancer Agency, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and 14Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Read the full article

• Various conflicting guidelines and recommendations about prostate cancer screening and early detection have left both clinicians and their patients quite confused. At the Prostate Cancer World Congress held in Melbourne in August 2013, a multidisciplinary group of the world’s leading experts in this area gathered together and generated this set of consensus statements to bring some clarity to this confusion.

• The five consensus statements provide clear guidance for clinicians counselling their patients about the early detection of prostate cancer.

 

The new AUA PSA Testing Guidelines leave me scratching my head

The fact that Otis Brawley describes the new PSA testing guidelines of the American Urological Association (AUA) as “wonderful”, should immediately raise a red flag at AUA headquarters. Dr Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, and the most vocal anti-prostate cancer screening voice in the USA over the past decade, has enthusiastically welcomed the new document and “commended” the AUA for bringing its policy closer to that of his Society. The Guidelines have also been compared to those of the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) which completely opposes PSA testing in any situation – a position which the AUA called “inappropriate and irresponsible” just a few months ago. Oh dear – where has it all gone wrong? ?

For those who haven’t yet seen the document, here are the five statements issued by the Guideline committee at the Annual Meeting of the AUA in San Diego this week along with some of my thoughts in italics:

  1. The Panel recommends against PSA screening in men under age 40 years. This appears reasonable.
  2. The Panel does not recommend routine screening in men between ages 40 to 54 years at average risk. I have some problems with this (as do many others). In addition to this statement, the AUA highlights its view that the likelihood of causing harm is high and that any benefit is marginal. It appears to have completely dismissed evidence (and its own previous view), that a baseline PSA in men in this age group is highly predictive of future prostate cancer, metastasis and death. In my view, there is considerable value in having a baseline PSA in this age group and I am disappointed that the AUA has not recognised the evidence to support this.
  3. For men ages 55 to 69 years the Panel recognizes that the decision to undergo PSA screening involves weighing the benefits of preventing prostate cancer mortality in 1 man for every 1,000 men screened over a decade against the known potential harms associated with screening and treatment. For this reason, the Panel strongly recommends shared decision-making for men age 55 to 69 years that are considering PSA screening, and proceeding based on a man’s values and preferences. I agree with the emphasis here on shared decision-making, although the concept can be somewhat nebulous and difficult to achieve in real-life. However, I think that this statement somewhat over-emphasises the harms associated with PSA testing in this group. Rather than portray the reduction in prostate cancer mortality as being very minor (1 in 1000), men should know that when compared with a man who chooses not to have PSA testing in this age group, those who do have regular PSA testing have a 44% reduction in prostate-cancer mortality over a 14 year period. Furthermore, the numbers needed to screen (293) and number needed to treat (12) to save one life stack up very well when compared with other screening modalities such as mammography (Hugosson et al). Why has the AUA instead chosen to over-emphasise the harms? This is disappointing.  
  4. To reduce the harms of screening, a routine screening interval of two years or more may be preferred over annual screening in those men who have participated in shared decision-making and decided on screening. As compared to annual screening, it is expected that screening intervals of two years preserve the majority of the benefits and reduce over-diagnosis and false positives. This appears reasonable.
  5. The Panel does not recommend routine PSA screening in men over age 70 years or any man with less than a 10 to 15 year life expectancy. Yes, but this strong advice not to offer PSA testing in men greater than 70 belies the fact that many men in this age group have a long life expectancy (eg in Australia a male who reaches 70 has a 15 year life expectancy (www.abs.gov.au), and an early diagnosis of prostate cancer may prevent their untimely death from this disease. Clearly, not all men in their 70’s are the same but following this advice to the letter could deny many men the option of avoiding death from prostate cancer in later life.

Therefore, it appears that the only circumstances under which the AUA currently recommend a PSA test be performed is for men between the age of 55 and 69 following a weekend seminar so they can be adequately informed (or thoroughly confused).

These statements have led to headlines such as these in the mass media today:

  • Urology Group Stops Recommending Routine PSA Test (USA Today)
  • Looser Guidelines Issued on Prostate Cancer Screening (New York Times)
  • Urologists No Longer Support Routine Prostate Cancer Screening (Minn Post)
  • Most men don’t need PSA test (Arizona Star)
  • AUA No Longer Recommend Routine PSA Testing For Prostate Cancer (Huff Post)

I think it is reasonable to say that this AUA document adds more confusion than clarity to the debate around prostate cancer testing. It has certainly provoked some anger among prominent members of the AUA who voiced their displeasure to the Committee during the plenary and also through social media. Dr Catalona was first to the microphone asking why AUA members were not more widely consulted prior to publication and in particular, challenging the guidance around men aged 40-54 (reported on Twitter):

 

 

Dr Stacy Loeb also voiced her concerns at various sessions during the day:

 

Much progress has been made in the last few decades with a 30% reduction in prostate cancer-specific mortality since the introduction of PSA testing. And while we accept that this has led to a large amount of over-treatment of less aggressive disease, it is clear that (at least outside the USA), active surveillance is being enthusiastically embraced for appropriate patients. Any return towards the pre-PSA era would likely lead to a reversal in these mortality gains and we would again see many more men presenting to our rooms with incurable disease.

As Dr Smith editorialized in the Journal of Urology following the publication of the ERSPC and PLCO trials in 2009, “Treatment or non-treatment decisions can be made once a cancer is found, but not knowing about it in the first place surely burns bridges”. It is clear that many urologists consider these new AUA PSA Guidelines to be in danger of burning these bridges. However, rather than burn bridges, it is likely that urologists and others will ignore these guidelines and continue to counsel men in a more balanced fashion about the pros and cons of PSA testing. The AUA will then need to consider whether ignored guidelines are failed guidelines.

 

Prof Tony Costello is a Director and Professor of Urology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Melbourne, Australia.

Twitter: @proftcostello

 

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