Predicting Prostate Cancer’s Future Behavior

Developing an accurate prognosis, i.e., predicting how a man’s cancer is likely to behave in the future, is the first and most important step toward optimal care. Future predictions are often looked at with some suspicion. With prostate cancer, however, our power to anticipate future cancer behavior is quite accurate unless there is a lack of thoroughness in gathering information.  One system designed to evaluate the risk of prostate cancer recurrence following localized treatment was formulated in 1998 by Dr. Anthony D’Amico.  For a summary of the D’Amico system, see this link.

The Size of the Tumor
Tumor size is a universally important prognostic sign for almost all types of cancer including prostate cancer. The method for incorporating tumor size into the Anthony D’Amico’s staging system relies on the degree of PSA elevation, the tumor grade and on how the prostate “feels” with the finger of a trained practitioner. These indicators are useful but don’t incorporate information from modern imaging. Imaging provides accurate information about tumor size and the presence or absence of extracapsular extension. These are very powerful prognostic predictors and it would be foolish to disregard their importance. As things stand presently these indicators are often used to divide the low, intermediate and high risk D’Amico categories into “favorable” and “unfavorable” subcategories, each with a different spectrum of recommended treatment options.

Knowing Past Treatments Tells Something about Future Prognosis
Historically, since the total number of available treatments is relatively limited, practitioners have used a sequential “trial and error” treatment methodology that administers the standard treatment options in a fairly predictable sequence. For example, it is not uncommon for men to start with surgery or radiation. When a relapse occurs, standard hormone therapy (Lupron) is often started and given intermittently or continuously. Hormone therapy usually controls the disease for an average of 10 years. When Lupron stops working, immunotherapy with Provenge may follow. After Provenge, more potent hormone therapy with Xtandi or Zytiga is started. If these two agents prove ineffective, chemotherapy with Taxotere (docetaxel®) or radiation with Xofigo would be considered next.  The whole point of presenting the treatment sequence described in this paragraph is to convey the idea that the number of previous treatments communicates important information about that patients’ future prognosis. Having “failed” Lupron, for example, bespeaks of a much more worrisome prognosis compared to the situation where Lupron continues to be effective.

Response to Lupron, The Mother of All Metrics
The quality of the “response” to Lupron is actually one of the most powerful prognostic metrics available. The degree of PSA decline after Lupron is incredibly important. How low the PSA drops after starting Lupron is called the “PSA nadir.” The specific PSA threshold used to determine a “good response” is less than 0.1. Believe it or not, there is a huge difference in prognosis between a man on Lupron for six months who has a PSA of 0.1 versus a man whose PSA levels off at 1.0.

An Established History is also a Prognostic Indicator
Another somewhat obvious prognostic indicator that is often overlooked and almost never discussed in textbooks has to do with the prognosis of men who have been diagnosed years ago — over time it is apparent that things are turning out much better than what might have been expected based on their initial indicators. For example, take the case of a man who started off with a panoply of bad indicators—tumor is in the lymph nodes and Gleason 10—but after aggressive treatment remains in remission for 5 years. The fact that things have gone well for five years counts big-time in his favor going forward. Remember, the original prognostic predictors of a Gleason 10 were just that, predictors. No predictor is 100% accurate. Five years of established history is a stronger predictor than the original Gleason score. The fact that things have gone well for five years, strongly indicates that the future is for that individual is bright. Such individuals may have “beaten the odds.”

The Location of the Tumor in the Body
Another extremely important indicator of prognosis, something that even laypeople anticipate by simple common sense, is the location of the cancer in the body. Location says volumes about how things are likely to progress in the future. For example, consider the following sequence of progressively more serious cancer sites:

•Contained within the prostate
•Extended into the seminal vesicle
•Spread to the lymph nodes
•Bone metastases
•Liver metastasis

Each of these locations is very important for determining prognosis.

This short blog is just an introduction to some of the “profiling” methods utilized in generating an accurate prognosis. Space limitations preclude discussion here about other known prognostic factors such as the size of the prostate gland, genetic tests and PSA doubling time. The D’Amico risk categories constitute the backbone of useful prognostic information. However, the additional prognostic information beyond the D’Amico risk categories that are discussed in this blog, provide additional useful information necessary for determining an accurate prognosis. An accurate prognosis is the starting point for accurate selection of treatment.

The preceding blog was posted on Dec 30th, 2015 by Mark Scholz, MD on his site entitled “Prostate Snatchers” to which I recommend a subscription.

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