New Test Gives Hope to Prostate Cancer Survivors

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Early detection has been the watchword for cancer treatment. While that is still a sound medical principle, it provides little guidance to those who undergo surgery, only to find their cancer recurring afterward. “There is a crying need in cancer research to focus on what happens after the initial cancer has been treated,” says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman. “Until recently, we haven’t had that many cancer survivors to study, but now researchers are increasingly trying to come up with treatment guidelines for the growing number of survivors whose tumor has been removed.” This week a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a promising set of guidelines for postsurgical prostate cancer patients, which relies on a blood test that detects prostate-specific antigen, or PSA.

The study found that prostate cancer patients need not be terrorized by an increase in their PSA levels -- which indicates the presence of remaining prostate cancer cells -- after an operation. “Prostate cancer usually grows slowly,” says Gorman. And many elderly men, the study found, can still expect to live for years, even with PSA levels rising, without having to undergo debilitating hormonal treatment -- which may make little difference in the end. “Looking at such factors as the postoperation PSA levels, its doubling time, how soon after surgery it went up, and how advanced was the cancer at the time of the surgery, “ says Gorman, “the study was able to come up with a general predictive formula” on the likelihood of suffering a rapid cancer relapse. The upshot is that the latest research offers patients vital information on the basis of which they can make choices -- and regain control of their lives -- without being stampeded by fear into marginally useful, complicated, aggressive treatments.