The prostate is a walnut-size gland that produces seminal fluid and nourishes sperm. Despite its small size, it’s the source of one of the most common cancers men are likely to develop. More than 240,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year, and 97 percent of those diagnosed are 50 or older. These numbers show the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment, which can be burdensome to patients and their caregivers.
It’s not uncommon for men to put off going to the doctor and getting information about prostate cancer because they are uncomfortable discussing such an intimate health issue, so it may become necessary for a caregiver to learn about this disease. When discovered early enough, the survival rate is nearly 100 percent.
How Is this Disease Treated?
There are various treatment options. Men are often embarrassed about discussing the potential side effects of treatment, including rectal bleeding and impotence. In the case of this cancer, however, ignorance can kill.
- With active surveillance (watchful waiting), the patient’s cancer is closely monitored and tests are regularly performed. Treatment only occurs if and when the cancer shows signs of growing.
- Traditional radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells and/or prevent them from growing. Radiation can be performed externally or internally.
- Hormone therapy, which uses drugs, surgery or other hormones to remove male sex hormones or prevent them from working.
- surgery (radical prostatectomy), which removes the entire prostate as well as surrounding tissue.
There are some treatments that are still under investigation for efficacy. These include:
- Cryotherapy allows specialists to use a probe to freeze and kill cancerous cells.
- Chemotherapy uses special drugs (pills, intravenous tube, or both) to shrink or kills the cancer.
- Biological therapy works with the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer. This treatment can also be used to control potential side effects from other treatments.
- High-intensity focused ultrasound therapy directs high-energy ultrasound to kill cancerous cells.
An effective but not little known treatment is proton therapy. This innovative treatment, which focuses a beam of radiation on the affected area, has proven to be ideal in the treatment of cancers of the head and neck, eye, central nervous system, lung, gastrointestinal and prostate, in addition to various sarcomas and pediatric cancers.
Tell Me More!
Proton therapy uses high-energy, external radiation to target tumors. Whereas traditional radiation affects not only the malignancy but surrounding tissue as well, this focused radiation treatment allows doctors to focus the beam directly on the tumor so surrounding tissue is less likely to be damaged.
Because proton therapy is a relatively new procedure in the treatment of prostate cancer, there are only a few facilities in the U.S. that are equipped to deliver this lifesaving treatment. Although some are initially concerned about the cost of this procedure, they soon learn that this treatment is covered by Medicaid, Medicare and many insurance providers.
What Are Some Benefits?
Often dubbed the “Radiation Vacation,” this treatment is frequently performed on an outpatient procedure. There are no incisions and less damage to surrounding tissue, so recovery is faster than with other methods. Patients are less likely to experience rectal bleeding and have a lower occurrence of impotence.
Perhaps the most important benefit to this procedure is that there is an extremely low rate of recurrences when proton therapy is used to treat prostate cancer. This not only benefits patients in the short term, but because they are less likely to return, patients have lower long-term healthcare costs overall.
What Do Patients (and Physicians) Have to Say?
“I have experienced three treatment options for prostate cancer. My proton experience was like a vacation compared to others,” said Michael Hecker, who was treated at the IU Health Proton Therapy Center (formerly the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute). Initially diagnosed in 2004, Hecker learned of this treatment through his dentist, who had been successfully treated for throat cancer. He has been in remission since his treatment.
Physicist Ray Peacock was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 and opted for surgery. When his cancer returned two and a half years later, he was hesitant to try intensity-modulated radiation therapy. Instead, he researched treatments and eventually settled on proton therapy. Peacock explained his choice: “I know a lot about nuclear physics, and I understood the treatment’s effects. It gave me more confidence.”
Jeffrey Buchsbaum, MD, who joined the IU Health Proton Therapy Center in 2010, is excited about this treatment. “I am absolutely convinced that using protons to treat children and certain tumors in adults is superior to photons (which are used in traditional X-ray radiation therapy,” stated Dr. Buchsbaum, a radiation oncologist specializing in the treatment of children.
With all of these benefits and few, if any, side effects, proton therapy is a treatment option that can ease the burden of men afflicted with prostate cancer, their families and their caregivers. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, consider this treatment option.